Human-rights advocates have cause to laud the end of China’s decades-old one-child policy. The controversial policy, first introduced in a series of measures in the late 70’s and implemented nationally in 1980, restricted couples to having only one child, with some exceptions. Forced abortion and sterilization are illegal in China, yet under the policy they still happened with frequency and were perpetuated by the law. Such practices have historically harmed poor women and women of color disproportionately around the world.
That China ended its one-child policy is an important step, but we’d be remiss not to call for further reform. A new policy dictates that all married couples will be allowed to have two children. Is this any better? Not if you choose to have three children.
Women and their families in China—and in countries throughout the world—are still being oppressed by laws that take decisions about pregnancy out of a woman’s hands and put them into the state’s. Until China promotes a fully rights-based, voluntary family planning program, it is supporting the continued oppression of Chinese families through coercive reproductive policies.
No government and no politician should interfere with the deeply personal decisions women make about whether or when to have children—period. This is true whether the state is trying to limit family size, deny a woman access to birth control, or force her to keep a pregnancy she wishes to end.
When women have access to quality health care, they lead more empowered and fulfilling lives. The advantages of a fully voluntary approach to family planning, where individuals and couples make free and informed decisions on how often to have children, are well documented. Studies show, for example, that when a woman is able to voluntarily decide if and when to have children, and how many, she tends to go further in school, and is more adaptable and resilient during times of hardship.
That’s why international bodies have continued to reaffirm that any form of coercion or restriction of women’s liberty is a form of violence against women, and call on nations to eliminate these practices. Just last month the 193 member states of the U.N., including China, committed to ensuring universal access to reproductive rights by 2030 when they adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Cynically, opponents of women’s health have long used the coercive practices in China to justify cutting U.S. support for international family planning programs. These policymakers hold up the false claim that the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) supported the coercive practices in China. In fact, UNFPA’s mission is to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. They have supported pilot programs to demonstrate the advantages of voluntary family planning over existing practice in China.
Coercion, violence, forced abortion, sterilization and other violations of basic human rights in limiting births can wreak havoc and harm on communities. The U.S. must remain a strong supporter and leader within the global community in order to best promote women’s rights and the freedom of every woman to make personal decisions about her health and her future. We must continue to invest in the international family planning and reproductive health programs, including a contribution to UNFPA, that we know advance women’s rights over their own bodies. And we must join women in China and around the world in a vision of a world where there are no limitations put on our bodies or how we form our families.