Single Women’s Reproductive Rights in China

Qian Liu explains that single women in China who are contemplating pregnancy often care more about the attitudes of their parents towards single mothers, than about the laws on assisted reproduction.

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“I don’t care if the law does or doesn’t grant single women reproductive rights. I can get pregnant on my own and give birth if I really want to. But I don’t think I want to be a single mother by choice even if it is legal. What I care about most are the feelings of my parents and my relationship with them.” This is a version of the most common answer I got from 72 Chinese women when I asked them about the law in China which denies unmarried women the right to reproduce using reproductive technologies.

China, a country with a fertility rate of 1.05 children per woman, prohibits offering assisted reproductive technologies to single women. Also, women who choose to be single mothers by choice in China are penalized by the state. They have to pay a social upbringing fee for violating the country’s family planning policy. While lawyers and international media blame these laws for creating barriers to childbearing by single women in China, I argue that these laws are by no means the most significant factors keeping China’s single women from becoming single parents.

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Last month, three Chinese NGOs involved in LGBT and gender issues released a report titled “Single Women’s Reproductive Rights – A Research Report on Policy and Lived Experience.” The report suggests that there is a close linkage between unmarried mothers’ miserable experiences and the law’s restrictions on childbearing out of wedlock. The authors of the report advocate for the legalization of births outside marriage to counter China’s low fertility rate. I agree that China’s unmarried women should be allowed to be single mothers by choice. However, I question the assumption that a new law that grants single women reproductive rights will significantly boost fertility rates.

Legal reform in China may change the social environment in a long run, but being a single mother is not an easy choice no matter where you live. Consider, for example, the situation in Canada. In 2015, Canadian family law scholars published a book on single mothers by choice. The book reveals that most women in Canada prefer to find a partner with whom to have children. The decision to become a single parent is often a last resort given that “parenting is very often accomplished in isolation from extended families and/or without adequate childcare and other social supports.”

Chinese people are also suffering from the privatization of the responsibility of childrearing. However, the main difference between parenting in Canada and China is that Chinese extended families often function as a whole to take care of children. Chinese people often regard raising a child as a responsibility to be shared by two generations. Indeed, grandparents are often the main caregivers in many Chinese families. Retired grandparents often view taking care of their grandchildren as both a contribution to their extended family and also as a source of personal satisfaction. Thus, what matters most for many single Chinese women contemplating pregnancy may be the attitudes of their parents, more so than the law.

I am not suggesting that single women in China do not need a just legal system that grants them reproductive rights. What I am concerned about is that an overemphasis on the law’s impact may shift our attention away from the main factors that stop single women from becoming single mothers by choice. My data show that many single women still depend on their parents financially and emotionally. Thus, they may prefer not to invite conflict with their parents, especially when society still attaches stigma to women who give birth out of wedlock. Filial piety and harmony within the family are important values in China. Chinese women also worry that their children may suffer from discrimination caused by the absence of a father.

In sum, I agree that the law should acknowledge Chinese single women’s reproductive rights.  It should not be the case that only those women who can afford to purchase reproductive services overseas and to pay the social upbringing fee should have the right to become single parents. But demanding the right for single women to reproduce freely in China is not likely to result in significant change in the fertility rate. This is especially the case when many women and their parents still have to rely on each other to meet the needs of buying house, child care, and family eldercare.

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Qian Liu is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Victoria, British Columbia. This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. @QianLiu