Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Battling the tide of abortions

A Chinese city's campaign to reduce the practice of aborting baby girls by gender detectionis an uphill battle in a `one child' system, where male babies are still prized much higher

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , GUIYANG

ILLUSTRATION: MEIYU

The warning hanging above a main street could not have been more blunt, its big white characters set off against a bright red banner promising to "firmly crack down on the criminal activity of drowning and other ways of brutally killing female babies."

Just across the way, though, in equally large letters, the advertisement above a medical clinic touted ultrasound tests, which have long been used in China to detect the sex of babies, as a prelude to aborting female fetuses. "I don't know what happens elsewhere, but we don't do gender tests here," said a 48-year-old doctor who gave her name only as Li. "Our equipment can't detect the sex before six months. The machine is too small."

Beginning in January, this city enacted a pioneering ban on abortions after the 14th week of pregnancy, part of a campaign to address one of the world's biggest gaps between male and female births that, though piecemeal, is quickly gathering momentum across China. National laws already prohibit sonograms for gender detection, which becomes possible after the 14th week, but the law has been spottily enforced.

"The current situation has severely affected the city's population and family planning work," Luo Zhuyun, the city's deputy mayor said in a recent interview with the Guiyang Dushibao, a local newspaper.

Consequences

"It has also had a great impact on the local economy, the use of resources and the prospects for sustainable development. There is no time to delay," Luo added.

If anything, though, the experience of Guiyang reveals how difficult a task China faces in trying to fine-tune its 25-year-old so-called one-child policy, one of the most ambitious social engineering measures ever attempted. Judged against its goal of slowing the growth of China's population, which is the world's largest, the policy has been a great success.

Chinese planners appear to have underestimated the urge of couples to have sons, though, a desire that drives many to desperate lengths. And the result has been a human and public health disaster: the large-scale abortion of female fetuses and the routine killing or abandonment of baby girls.

Given the strength of this desire for male heirs, Guiyang's bid to rein in its gender imbalance -- 129 boys born for every 100 girls, and 147 to 100 for couples seeking second or third children -- might seem doomed. Gynecology clinics offering ultrasound tests do a flourishing business in this city, and are more common in many neighborhoods than convenience stores. Try as one may to find one, though, hardly a doctor here acknowledges engaging in the practice of gender detection.

It was an unusually slow day for Dr. Wang Jin at his thriving two-storefront clinic in Wangchengpo, a cluttered hillside neighborhood favored by rural migrants, where a dozen clinics compete for the ultrasound and abortion business. "Almost everyone wants to know the gender of their child," Wang said, interrupting his hotpot pork lunch to speak with a visitor. "Out of 100 people, perhaps 90 ask. With migrant workers it is 100 percent."

The doctor said he performs as many as 400 abortions a year in his crowded, crudely furnished clinic, where women disappear in shallow stalls behind skimpy blue curtains for examinations. It costs US$17 for the basic service, or twice that amount for what Wang called a "painless abortion," meaning one with anesthesia.

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