Today's China Statistic: Abortions

Abortions are common in China. But is the total number really so high?
chinaabortion.jpg(Andrew Wong/Reuters)

China is a country where abortions occur with quiet regularity. From the International Business Times (via China Digital Times) comes these figures:

  • Since 1971, more than 336 million abortions have been performed in China.
  • Since 1980, more than 200 million sterilizations -- both male and female -- have been performed.
  • Also since 1980, more than 400 million women have been inserted with intra-uterine devices.

Why is abortion so common in China? Here are three main reasons:

First, sex education remains woefully inept in the country, particularly in rural areas. Chinese parents tend not to talk about "the birds and the bees" with their kids, and schools aren't expected to fill the gap -- there's no national policy toward sex education and anyway, a course on the subject would be a distraction from all-important university entrance examinations. As a result, a large number of young Chinese people become sexually active without knowing much about birth control. This is changing -- condoms are easily available in cities -- but reliable information can still be difficult to come by.

Secondly, there's the One-Child Policy. Enacted in 1980, this infamous government attempt to limit population growth has imposed stiff penalties on many Chinese families who have more than one child, leaving abortion as a practical solution to accidental pregnancies. Furthermore, a cultural preference for male heirs has led many people to abort female fetuses, a practice that has since been outlawed in China but still happens with some regularity.

Finally, China lacks the intense cultural stigma toward abortion that so inflames the debate in the United States, and abortion tends to be a surprisingly open topic of conversation in the country. For instance, it's safe to say that billboards touting no pain, three-minute Korean-style abortions would raise a few eyebrows in the United States -- but they're not uncommon in China. This isn't to say that Chinese women are flip about the procedure; rather, most Chinese regard abortion's legality as an uncontroversial fact of life.

But at the end of the day, is abortion actually much more common in China compared to other countries? For instance, most estimates pin the number of abortions in the United States since the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1971 at around 53 million, or approximately 1/7th of the concurrent Chinese figure. But because China's population has remained at least four times as large as America's over the past forty years, one could argue that pregnant women in China since 1970 have been less than twice as likely as their American counterparts to have an abortion. And when you consider that American families can have as many children as they want, lack a cultural preference for male offspring, and face sharply limited access to abortions in some states, this difference doesn't seem to be so striking after all.

Given the availability of abortion and the incentives of women to have on in China, it's almost a wonder that they don't happen more frequently than they do.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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