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An Analysis of US & Chinese Attitudes to Abortion

FIKAYO AKEREDOLU discusses the differences in US and Chinese cultural attitudes towards abortion.

Almost two years into the spread of COVID-19, it is clear that the pandemic has disrupted global health systems. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reports that the fallout from the pandemic has potentially setback international health efforts, especially when sexual and reproductive health is considered. For women and child-bearing people worldwide, rights and freedoms have been reversed, and abortions have been banned in some countries. Unfortunately, this reversal of rights has proved deadly in many cases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that 23,000 women have died of unsafe abortions, and tens of thousands more experience significant health complications. This means that legal restrictions on abortion do not discourage abortions, it simply reduces access to safe and medically protected procedures. The WHO defines this inability to access safe, timely, affordable and respectful abortion care as a ‘critical public health and human rights issue’.

On the 24th of June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned the decision of Roe v Wade which made abortion legal in the country. This action has been met with mixed reactions globally. Women’s rights activities and those who believe a woman should decide if she wants to be pregnant are livid, and those who think life begins at conception are enthusiastic. This decision in the US has reverberated worldwide. Some believe the US is a blueprint and see this action potentially driving abortion legislation in their country. Of the seven wealthiest countries in the world, abortion is banned only in Germany, which is currently working to reverse this law which has Nazi-era origins. The United States is one of only four countries that have removed abortion protection in the last 25 years.

China is ranked as the second world superpower after the United States. It is the second largest economy in the world. China’s attitude to female reproductive health is cloaked in the complicated history of the one-child policy. The legacy of this policy is fraught with terrifying stories of forced abortion and sterilisation in some cases. In addition, the policy has led China to a male-skewed sex ratio, evidence of female feticide and an ageing population. Abortion is legal in China. Abortion is also generally accepted and widely performed. However, in contrast to conservative Christian beliefs, traditional Chinese beliefs hold that life begins at birth instead of at conception. This belief means that abortions to end unwanted pregnancies that do not risk the mother’s life or are not a function of rape or incest are not considered murder. As the abortion debate continues, it is worth assessing the differences in Chinese and American attitudes to and perceptions of abortion.

The Global Inequality Index (GII) measures gender inequality by accounting for reproductive freedoms, political empowerment and economic status measured by labour force participation. A lower GII means a country has greater gender equality. In 2019, China scored 0.168 while the United States scored 0.204, meaning women in China face fewer gender inequalities than their US peers. This ranking seems ironic considering how America has historically and to the current day expressed grave concerns about China’s approach to human rights, especially religious and reproductive rights. As abortion debates continue worldwide, it is essential to remember that women and child-bearing people are the primary victims or benefactors of these reproductive and sexual health outcomes. Therefore, easy and legal access to reproductive and sexual health plays a crucial role in defining the level of gender equality in a country.

Lawmakers in Missisippi wrote in their 2018 bill that the United States is one of seven countries that ‘permits nontherapeutic or elective abortion-on-demand after the twentieth week of gestation.’ The other six countries on this list include China and Canada. This comparison excludes the nuance and context that surrounds the abortion debate in both countries. In China, following the US Supreme Court ruling, a hashtag about the decision began trending. It gained over 40 million views on China’s Weibo, a Twitter-like service in China. Hu Xijin, a former editor of Chinese state-run Global Times, called the Supreme Court’s decision pathetic.

In a 1996 paper, Susan Rigdon writes about how Chinese students in her class did not grasp the political context in which abortion is discussed in the US. For example, how can a fetus be regarded as having personhood? The truth is that in both countries, the state exerts some measure of control on women and their reproductive choices. The difference lies in why. In China, it is in compliance with family planning and social customs. For Chinese nationals, the reasons for abortion tend to revolve around the one-child policy. Abortions were induced and in some cases forced on women who already had a child. Abortions were also carried out due to son preference meaning female fetuses were terminated. In the US it is due to politics and religion. The reasons for abortion are usually an inability to afford a baby at the time, already having the desired number of children and not wanting to be a single parent. The existing data shows that most abortions in China were carried out on married woman practicing contraception. This is in sharp contrast to the US where it is mostly young unmarried women who terminate pregnancies.

Data from the BBC (figure below) shows that China and the US have a similar rate of abortion per every 1000 women (24 and 15) respectively. This means that abortions happen around the world regardless of the law.

US and Chinese attitudes to abortion and reproductive health differ due to the cultural and historical policy differences in both countries. Despite these differences, there is a need for women and child-bearing people to be protected and guaranteed the best healthcare possible. This means making abortion safe should be a priority for policy-makers to avoid preventable deaths and health complications. The US and China must make a concerted effort to prioritse the needs of women and child-bearing people so that they can participate in the economy and enjoy the same privileges as their male peers.

Fikayo Akeredolu can be reached at Fikayo is a Schwarzman Scholar and DPhil (PhD) candidate at Oxford University. She has previously worked at Bloomberg and Refinitiv (now the London Stock Exchange Group) in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. When not working, she enjoys running and tries to improve her Mandarin.

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