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Traditional Chinese values largely perceive that the right to life begins from the moment of childbirth. Photo: AFP

ExplainerIs abortion legal in China, how common is it and why is it controversial?

  • The procedure is legal and widely available across the country but it is also used as a means of population and social control
  • During the one-child policy forced abortions were common but falling birth rates are prompting a change in stance
The US Supreme Court overturned the country’s landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, which guaranteed women’s right to abortion and legalised it nationwide, on June 24 despite widespread protests.

In China – which has one of the world’s highest recorded abortion rates – women’s reproductive rights have also historically been a contentious issue, but are seen through a very different cultural lens.

Here’s what you need to know about abortions in China.

Are abortions legal in China?

Abortions are widely accepted and performed across China – they are accessible to all women and are offered by the nation’s family planning programme, public and private hospitals, as well as clinics countrywide.

They have been legal for more than half a century since 1953, making China one of the first developing countries in the world to make abortion legal and easily accessible.

Traditional Chinese values largely perceive that the right to life begins from the moment of childbirth.

Abortions to terminate unwanted pregnancies are therefore hardly seen as “murder” or something to be guilty about in the atheist nation, and public debates involving strong “pro-life” or “pro-choice” views are practically non-existent.

How common is abortion in China?

China has one of the highest rates of abortion in the world, at 49 abortions for every 1,000 reproductive-aged women each year between 2015 to 2019, according to a study published by the US-based Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization in March.

The study defined reproductive-aged women as between 15 and 29 years old.

In comparison, the US and Canada reported 23 abortions for every 1,000 reproductive-aged women each year during the same period. The average for Eastern and Southeast Asia – which had the highest rates among the world’s regions, was 43 abortions per 1,000 reproductive-aged women per year.

Access to safe abortion still a struggle in Asia

According to national statistics, China has recorded an annual average of about 9 million abortions in most years.

But the number has been on the rise since 2017. There were 9.6 million induced abortions registered in 2017, or 17.4 per cent of the global total of 55 million cases.

In 2019, the number exceeded 9.76 million cases but the real number has been widely estimated at 13 million by experts and local media reports. Government statistics do not capture abortion cases in private hospitals and underground clinics.


China tackles challenges posed by its ageing population

China tackles challenges posed by its ageing population

Local studies have shown most of the abortions are performed on young and unmarried women who have never given birth before.

Nearly half of the women who underwent abortions were aged 25 and below. Of these, more than half had received more than one abortion, according to a report by the Southern Metropolis Daily.

For all its widespread acceptance, abortion has been controversial in China, with reports of women forced to undergo the procedure, as well as the practice of sex-selective abortions. More recently, unmarried young women have been refused an abortion for “non-medical” reasons.

Forced abortions

In 1979, China introduced a strict one-child policy to lower the growth of the country’s enormous population.

As part of the policy, which was only relaxed in 2016, authorities enforced invasive family planning measures that included forced abortions, sterilisation and fines to punish illegal births.

What was China’s one-child policy and why was it so controversial?

Millions of Chinese women have reportedly suffered traumatising experiences including being dragged away to have their babies aborted, and witnessing their newborns being drowned.
One particular case in 2012 caused national outrage: a Shaanxi woman, Feng Jianmei, was held down and injected with a drug to abort her seven-month-old fetus after she and her husband could not pay fines for having a second child.

Photos of the distressed woman next to her child’s remains were made public just a day after authorities had published a human rights action plan.

Ethnic minorities had exemptions from the one-child policy, but in recent years human rights groups have reported that ethnic minority women, including Uygurs and Muslim groups in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang, were subject to forced sterilisations and abortions.

Women who escaped from Xinjiang have testified that the Chinese authorities carried out pregnancy checks, inserted intrauterine devices and forced sterilisations and abortions on them.

European Parliament passes landslide vote on alleged Xinjiang rights abuses

ChinaAid Association reported that in 2018, family planning authorities in Xinjiang’s Burultoqay county detained an ethnic Kazakh woman named Juliziya Mogudong and forced her to undergo an abortion at a local hospital, for exceeding birth quotas.

Several countries, including the US and Britain, have declared that China has committed genocide in Xinjiang by forcefully preventing births among the Uygur population, although Beijing has denied the allegations.


With only one child permitted by the birth quota and the traditional cultural preference for a son to continue the family line, families in the last century often opted to abort female fetuses so they could have sons.


China 2020 census records slowest population growth in decades

China 2020 census records slowest population growth in decades
An estimated 20 million baby girls went “missing” from the population between 1980 and 2010 – either through abortions or infanticide so parents could increase their chances of having a boy, according to academic estimates from Xian Jiaotong University.

As a result, China has one of the largest gender imbalances in the world, with 34.9 million more males than females, according to census data released in 2021.

Policy shift

With China now facing a population crisis and birth rates showing no sign of reversing even after the one-child policy was relaxed in 2016, national policy has shifted towards encouraging births.

‘Forcing people to get pregnant?’ Backlash against China’s new abortion policy

The country’s family planning agency announced in late January it would “intervene” when unmarried women and teenagers seek abortions and promote traditional values to encourage people to have more children.
In June, the State Council also released guidelines saying it will “reduce the rate of abortions needed for non-medical reasons”.

Although there have been no changes to the law so far to halt abortions for unmarried women or teenagers, or those without medical reasons, many see these policies as yet another form of government interference in women’s bodily autonomy and families’ private lives, after the notorious measures taken during the one-child policy era.