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Oct 22, 2021

After more than 35 years of various versions of what has come to be called “the one-child policy,” which experts estimate cost the country between 200 and 400 million lives, China is attempting an about-face. In 2015, the government officially ended the one-child policy and allowed couples to have up to two children in some circumstances. In May of this year, that number was increased to three. Now, as of September, Chinese leaders have officially started discouraging “non-medical” abortions. 

Make no mistake: abortion is wrong. Preborn lives are human lives - and they’re always worth protecting. However, that’s not why China cares or is changing its policy. 

Instead, this seems to be about China’s looming demographic crisis. The 2020 census revealed that China’s fertility rate is the lowest since they started recording it in the 1950s. An aging population means fewer workers and more retirees. Decades of sex-selective abortions mean China is facing a disproportionate shortage of young women. The question is whether the country has entered an irreversible population decline.

It’s a serious crisis - but it’s also one that the Chinese Communist Party created. In the late 1970s, reacting to fears of overpopulation and its impact on the state-planned economy, China went to extreme - often Orwellian - lengths to limit the number of children each woman could have. Now Chinese officials need to increase the fertility rate by any means necessary, or face the real possibility of economic disaster. 

This kind of policy whiplash creates its own cruel ironies. One is that a state which has forced hundreds of millions of abortions is now advising women about its negative health impacts. Chinese state media describes abortion as "very harmful" and argues it could cause "serious psychological disorders" for unmarried women. Given how recently the state was forcing Chinese women into abortions, it’s hard to feel like the state’s concern is genuine. 

After all, there’s a human cost to these policies. One Chinese mother told the story of having to choose between aborting her second child or paying a 200,000 yuan fine - $31,250 in US dollars. She and her husband couldn’t raise the money, and their preborn child was aborted. Two months later, Beijing rescinded the 0ne- child Policy. Their baby would have been born the following Spring. 

The ironies extend to China’s Uyghur Muslims. A core element of China’s genocide of this ethnic group is the practices of forced abortion and sterilization. Even as China seeks to boost fertility in some regions, there is little hope that forced abortions among Uyghur Muslim women will be stopped. 

The Chinese vision of a disposable population runs deep. In 1957, Chinese dictator Mao Zedong was asked whether he feared a nuclear attack on his country. “What if they killed 300 million of us?” he replied. “We would still have many people left.”

Chairman Mao’s answer to that question may be different today, but the worldview underlying his answer wouldn’t be. One commentator on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, put it this way: "The female body has become a tool. When (the state) wants you to bear a child, you must do it at all cost. When (the state) doesn't want it, you're not allowed to give birth even at the risk of death."

It’s not just the female body that’s become a tool in China, it’s every single person who’s reduced to a tool of the state. Within such a system, there is neither respect for human life nor for the autonomy of Chinese women. In June, my colleague Roberto Rivera and I wondered if forced procreation might be China’s logical next step. That doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched now as it did then.

The bottom line is that no matter what the Chinese Communist Party does, whatever policies they enact, people are people. They aren’t a means to an end that is the state; they are the end, and the state should be thought of as the means. That goes for unborn children, that goes for mothers, that goes for everyone. Human lives should not be contingent on the whims of the state, either to end them or to “spare” them. It is the purpose of a truly just government to protect people’s God-given rights. 

America’s founders, for all their flaws, enshrined this principle into law.  They believed that people weren’t products of the state but were endowed with “inalienable rights” by their Creator, rights that pre-existed the state.  Of course, that should make Westerners ask whether we’re living up to that belief. China might be sacrificing - or saving - preborn children for the good of the state, but we often do the same thing on the altar of individual preference.

Nevertheless, China’s attempt to restrict abortion does save lives, even if for all the wrong reasons. A worldview that elevates the state’s role at all costs will inevitably bulldoze sound economic principles, the sanctity of life, and the fundamental rights of people again and again. The pendulum may swing, but the abuses will continue.