In 1979, because of concerns over the high rate of population growth, the Chinese government implemented a 'one-child policy'. In the towns and cities, couples are limited to one child, while rural families may have up to two children in very restricted circumstances.
In 1994, the law added eugenic provisions to limit what the Government described as 'inferior births'. People with a 'serious hereditary disease' were required to give up childbearing. Doctors had to instruct pregnant women to abort in cases of serious foetal abnormalities. This 1994 law provoked international condemnation.
The official Chinese policy is that the 'one-child' policy involves voluntary cooperation on the part of women. However, stories from Chinese sources, particularly former medical workers in the system, would appear to confirm that families are put under great pressure to comply with the policy.
For example in early 2003, the US State Department report on human rights in China, criticized the one-child policy and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for its involvement in coerced abortion. Subsequently, U.S. funding was withdrawn from UNFPA.
The one-child policy requires that women have to be aged 23 to get married. A government certificate is required if the couple want a child.
Women are monitored very closely. Every month, their birth control and weight is checked and teams from the Birth Planning Department can call unexpectedly at home, to check for any hidden pregnancy.
After a woman gives birth, her work team leader contacts the Department who then arrange for an IUD to be inserted and a certificate issued. X-ray checks are carried out every three months to see if the IUD is still in place.
In the countryside, women are allowed a child after twenty. Some have two or three children and manage to hide them. If the birth control teams discover the women, she is brought to a hospital and sterilized.
When birth control teams were alerted to a woman hiding a pregnancy, they sent women medics accompanied by male minders to break into the house or flat. Forays into rural villages are usually heavily guarded.
A doctor involved in such raids testified that the hospital had bars on the windows, so that nobody could escape. When a raid was being planned, staff were alerted to work nights as the roundups took place around midnight. The women were woken and transported in vans with guards inside. On arrival at the hospital, the women were split up for either sterilizations or abortions.
If the woman was eight or nine months pregnant, a needle was inserted into her womb. If the baby was born alive, a needle would be inserted into the fontella, a soft spot on the top of the head.
Because couples are permitted only one child, there is a strong cultural imperative to ensure that child is male. Consequently, people will bribe medical staff for an ultrasound scan to discover if the baby is a boy or girl. If the baby is a girl, she is likely to be aborted.
This cultural preference for boys has resulted in a growing imbalance between the number of men and women in China today. According to a 1992 preliminary survey, the sex ratio at birth in China was 118 boys per 100 girls.
A new law adopted in 1994, addresses one the main causes of the sex imbalance of newborns; the practice of suffocating or drowning unwanted daughters after delivery and reporting them as stillbirths.
The new law requires health workers to report the deaths of newborn babies to public health authorities. The testing of pregnant women to identify the sex of the foetus was also strictly forbidden.
The Chinese Government has started a government public information pilot project to highlight the status of the girl child.
Under the national birth planning law, Chinese citizens - in theory - have the ability under the Administrative Procedures Law to sue officials who violate their "family planning rights." The government has established a "hotline" for citizens to report abusive family planning practices to the federal authorities.
China's aging population and rising ratio of dependent to wage-earning adults pose tremendous challenges for the country. The lack of effective pension and social welfare systems for senior citizens results in a growing burden on China's working age population. Many Chinese "one-child" couples, lacking siblings, are hard-pressed to support two sets of aging parents.