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Elephant in the room…part 2 » Family Planning

Elephant in the room…part 2

November 13th, 2008 by mjromano Leave a reply »

The human rights abuses of the one-child policy in China are varied and well documented, so I am not going to enumerate them in depth here, but I do want to make a distinction between two categorically different critiques of the one-child policy. The first critique is that the state has no right to deliberately control its population, and the intent of the one-child policy’s collectivization of birth control is a violation of a basic individual human right to control one’s reproduction. The second critique is that China has implemented the one-child policy in a way that systematically discriminates against women and girls, thus violating their human rights, regardless of whether collectivization is itself immoral. It is important to distinguish critiques of collectivization of reproduction from critiques of the gender-biased implementation of that collectivization in order to successfully promote human rights.

As I mentioned in my previous posting, the histories of Confucianism and Communism in China indicate that many Chinese people do support the idea of collectivizing birth control. The strong line that Western liberalism draws between a family’s decision to have a child and the community’s decision to have a new member is not a Chinese phenomenon, nor is the liberal feminist line between the oppressive private and empowering public spheres. Many western feminists have decried the one-child policy in a way that ignores Chinese feminist perspectives. Some human rights abuses, such as forced sterilization and induced poverty, stem directly from the collectivization of reproduction as the state tries to restrict couples from having more than one child. But if you can temporarily accept the idea that the state has some collective responsibility to regulate reproduction, then the aforementioned abuses of the one-child policy may seem like the harsh but necessary costs of enforcing a socially acceptable law. Although there is a tendency to accept individual human rights as natural and inalienable, different people may view human rights very differently. If you accept state responsibility for controlling population, then you may still judge other indirect gender-biased results of the collectivization of reproduction as fundamentally unjust because they hurt women and do nothing to achieve the goal of societal birth control.

In addition to the general human rights violations that accompany China’s state effort to exert reproductive control, the one-child policy also led to several gender-based human rights abuses such as female infanticide and sex-selective abortions that do not support the overall goal of collectivizing reproduction. If you assume the perspective that the Communist state has some responsibility to regulate births, these abuses are particularly concerning because they undermine gender-neutral worker solidarity in the Marxist state. The misinterpretation of the “in real difficulaties” clause that I mentioned in the previous posting is one clear way that birth control leads to gender discrimination. Parents say they cannot survive without a male child leads to state exception of the one-child policy. The fault of the situation is not the parents worrying about surviving, but the economic system that makes their survival dependent on patriarchy. The chinese women’s resistance to the one-child policy that I have encountered focuses on the gender-biased implementation of the policy as opposed to the idea of collectivizing reproduction. The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) is a Chinese women’s advocacy organization that focuses on the problems that Chinese women face under this policy without challenging the overall goal of the state birth rate control. In contrast to the international human rights community’s condemnation of the intent of the Chinese state to control births, the ACWF selectively fights against women’s discrimination within the system of control. Selectively challenging the gender-biased implementation of the one-child policy may be easier and safer than addressing it’s underlying goal of collectivizing reproduction, and it may be an incomplete tactic for critics working within China, but I think it is a critique well worth our attention.

The overarching question that I am getting at is simply whether China can directly control its population without disenfranchising women. Just as Julia pointed out in her response to my post last week, we wonder if there is a way to use incentives and disincentives within a legal framework to control population from a state level in a gender-neutral way. This line of questioning may appear to run counter to my previous posts that openly criticized all hierarchical reproductive control, but my point here is that many Chinese women do support the goal of the one-child policy, just as many Puerto Ricans supported widely available sterilizations. I am in no position as a white male American to say that these women are wrong in their beliefs, but I am trying to better understand the complexities of human rights relating to population control. I think the most important fault of both the Puerto Rican sterilization debacle and the one-child policy is their exclusion of the women themselves from the policy-making process. By this I do not mean any women should participate in the process, but specifically the women that the policies affect have a role in determining those policies. Maybe this idea itself is a Western democratic imposition on Chinese politics, but it also seems egalitarian (and proletariat-centered) to me.

Although the limited scope of the ACWF may only address part of the human rights complexities of the one-child policy, I think it offers Westerners an opportunity to support Chinese anti-discrimination work. If organizations like the ACWF achieved their goals in removing gender-bias from the one-child policy, then there would be more room to discuss the underlying ethics of state control of population. Can you remove gender-bias from a system that regulates population? All of my blog entries try to address that question, although they don’t provide a monolithic answer. China is so committed to controlling its population, this case study offers me the opportunity to confront my own concerns with population control.

Hartmann, Betsy. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control and Contraceptive Choice. HarperCollins Publishers, 1987.

Sen, Amartya. “Population: Delusion and Reality.” New York Review of Books, Vol 41, No. 15, Sept. 1994.

Wong, Yuk-Lin Renita. “Dispersing the ‘Public’ and the ‘Private’: Gender and the State in Birth Planning Policy of China. Gender & Society, Vol. 11 No. 4, August 1997, 509-525.



  1. jliebner@stanford.edu says:

    I don’t think China can control its population without disenfranchising women. While influenced by Communist ideology (which is not necessarily bad – there are good arguments for individual actions for the collective good), women may actually be in favor of the one child policy and doesn’t seem to mind have reproduction controlled this way, your second point still stands. Given gender disparities and the underlying value of a woman, girls are not the preferred choice. By limiting reproduction to one, aka only giving women one shot, they are, time and time again, going to way and do everything in their power to have a boy. And this is a violation of human rights. What I’ve been thinking more about recently, is the responsibility of the government to control population for economic reasons. With population growth inevitably comes poverty, and poverty is “the world’s most ruthless killer and the greatest cause of suffering on earth”. While improved health will produce more people (lessening child mortality, improving life expectancy), increased poverty will also prevent people from being healthy. I believe governments have a duty to reduce poverty, and I think that in the government’s eyes, the easiest way to act is to reduce reproduction and governments are doing this in various ways: forced sterilization, economic incentives, etc, but women, as a population, are becoming victimized.

  2. Maggie Chen says:

    I like how you straight-forwardly stated the larger question you’ve been trying to answer throughout the entries. I don’t think you can remove gender bias from a reproduction or sexual health-related system. Ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman (or perhaps transgender or a different gender) and the positive and negative implications of those meanings will always be around. However, I do think that you can bring more equality to how population control systems view gender. Throughout your dialogue on China, I kept thinking, “Where are the vasectomies??” If the government is offering, and perhaps pushing, birth control and sterilization for women, they should devote an equal amount of attention to men (vasectomy and maybe condoms would be the main ones, until we develop a darn birth control pill for men, we can talk more about this if you want). This assumes a perspective that men and women have somewhat equal hands in the creation of a fetus, but I think this might have a shot at changing the gender bias in population control.

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