Chapter 9: The transformation of abortion law in China
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This chapter traces and examines the transformation of the abortion law in China from feudal times to the contemporary era and explores the future directions of Chinese abortion policy in the face of socioeconomic challenges. The Chinese abortion law underwent profound changes in the previous century with alongside political transitions and social revolution, and underlying these changes were the country’s age-long effort to achieve modernization. It went through different developmental stages, namely non-intervention, prohibition, and regulation, mirroring China’s socioeconomic evolution and the policy rationales of different regimes. In feudal China, while Confucianism accentuated the value of human life and the paramount importance of procreation within Chinese kinship, there was no law prohibiting women from obtaining abortion. It was not until the Late Qing period—under the influence of the Western legal tradition and with China’s priority on modernization—that legal sanction on abortion was first introduced. The law continued to ban abortion during the Republican era and the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but it was eventually relaxed in the 1950s when the PRC implemented its family planning program. Since then, abortion has been legalized and became indispensable to the country’s one-child policy. The PRC has strategically regulated abortion by allowing wide access to it and prohibiting sex-selective abortion to achieve its population goal. In this chapter, the author argues that abortion has transformed from a familial matter into a subject of state governance, reflecting the extension of state power into the private domain and the subsuming of individual reproduction within the state’s broader biopolitical agenda. The reform in abortion law was driven by the state modernization project rather than the principle of human rights or collective activism. In this light, abortion access may subject to policy changes, particularly in times of population aging and fertility decline. China’s case demonstrates that the actualization of reproductive rights is contingent upon the ruling party’s political interests and the developmental goals set forth by the state. Therefore, there is no absolute guarantee for the continuation of its legality and availability, even in a place where abortion has been made easily accessible for several decades. Different from other democratic countries, in a society where collective actions are surveilled and repressed, individuals or groups have to adopt a pragmatic approach by aligning their agenda with the state’s developmental initiatives and restraining themselves from challenging the regime’s political authority in order to advocate for the protection and advancement of reproductive rights.

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