China is considering the elimination of its controversial one-child policy in response to an aging population and a gender imbalance created by sex-selective abortion, Reuters reports.
The present policy usually limits families to one child, or two children if they live in the countryside.
“We want incrementally to have this change,” Vice Minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission Zhao Baige told reporters in a Beijing talk about possible changes to the policy.
"I cannot answer at what time or how, but this has become a big issue among decision makers," Zhao added. "The attitude is to do the studies, to consider it responsibly and to set it up systematically."
China is the world’s most populous country. Its average fertility rate has dropped from 5.8 children per woman in the 1970s to 1.8 children per woman today, below the replacement rate of 2.1.
The Chinese government says its policies have prevented several hundred million births. However, experts have warned that its ageing population could cause severe social problems as the elderly come to outnumber the working population. The policy has also caused gender disparity from the selective abortion of girls, as male children are preferred for traditional and economic reasons.
The gender ratio in China is still close to 120 boys for every 100 girls
Increased mobility of the nation’s about 150 million migrant workers has weakened enforcement of the one-child policy. Wealthy citizens are also willing to pay the fines imposed by the policy when they have more children, though officials have pledged to increase fines on wealthy lawbreakers.
Enforcement of the policy has at times been draconian. According to human rights groups and the U.S. government, family planning officials have sometimes used forced abortion, coercive sterilization, and other abuses to ensure compliance with the policy.
Reggie Littlejohn, an American attorney who advises the Brussels-based non-governmental organization, Human Rights Without Frontiers, spoke with Cybercast News Service on Thursday, voicing her skepticism about the announcement.
"Right now, the one-child policy is often implemented by forced abortion and forced sterilization," she said. "Even if some couples in the future are allowed to have more than one child under the new policy, will the government still enforce that higher birth limit through coerced abortion and sterilization?"
"The timing of this announcement is no accident," she said, noting the announcement’s proximity to the Beijing Olympic Games and recent concerns about China’s involvement in Darfur.
"For me, the real question is not, 'Will the Chinese government abolish the one-child policy,'" Littlejohn said. "The real question is, 'Will the Chinese government abolish its coercive birth-control practices?"
The Bush administration withholds funding from the United Nations Population Fund because of its association with Chinese population control programs. According to Cybercast News Service, U.S. law prohibits funding for any agency that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”
China’s population could grow to 1.5 billion by 2033.