When Chan Zhang learned of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, he was puzzled that Americans were still arguing about abortion rights.
“Here, in general, society doesn’t encourage abortion,” said Ms. Zhang, a 37-year-old junior faculty member at a prestigious university on China’s east coast, “but I feel that women have a right in terms of whether I want to abort.”
Abortion, like almost all reproductive issues in China, is heavily centered on the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. The party for decades forced abortions and sterilizations on women as part of its one-child policy. Now, faced with a demographic crisis, he wants women to have more than one baby, and preferably three.
But Beijing continues to dictate who can have babies, discriminating against single women like Zhang and minorities through draconian family planning policies. The question now, many women say, is why they would choose to have babies.
With China’s birthrate at an all-time low, officials have been handing out housing and tax credits, educational benefits and even cash incentives to encourage women to have more children. However, the benefits are available only to married couples, a prerequisite that is becoming less attractive to independent women who, in some cases, would prefer to be single mothers.
Babies born to single parents in China have long struggled to receive social benefits such as health insurance and education. Single and pregnant women are regularly denied access to public health care and insurance that covers maternity leave. They are not legally protected if employers fire them for being pregnant.
Some single women, including Ms. Zhang, are simply choosing not to have a child, quietly rejecting Beijing’s control over women’s bodies. Those who find ways around the rules often face consequences from the state.
“Many people think that being a single mother is a process of confronting public opinion, but it is not,” said Sarah Gao, 46, a single mother who lives in Beijing and is outspoken about reproductive rights. “It’s actually this system.”
Chinese law requires a pregnant woman and her husband to register their marriage in order to receive prenatal care at a public hospital. When Ms. Gao found out that she was pregnant, she had to tell doctors at a hospital that her husband was abroad to be admitted.
Their daughter was born in November 2016. Eight months later, Ms. Gao was fired from her job, prompting her to file a lawsuit accusing the company of workplace discrimination. The company won because Ms. Gao does not qualify for benefits and legal protections as a single mother.
The court said her birth out of wedlock “did not conform to China’s national policy.” She is appealing for the third time.
China’s national family planning policy does not explicitly state that a single woman cannot have children, but defines a mother as a married woman and favors married mothers. Villages offer cash bonuses to families with new babies. Dozens of cities have extended maternity leave, adding an extra month for mothers marrying for the second and third time. A province in northwest China is even considering a full year of leave. Some have created “parenting breaks” for married couples with young children.
But sweeteners are not doing much to reverse the demographic crisis, especially in the face of a steady decline in China’s marriage rate, which hit a 36-year low last year. Women who came of age during the greatest period of economic growth in China’s modern history are increasingly concerned that their hard-won independence will be taken away if they settle down.
A politician at China’s most recent annual meeting of its rubber-stamp legislature suggested the party be more tolerant of single women who want children, giving them the same rights as married couples. Yet even as population decline threatens Beijing’s long-term economic ambitions, Chinese authorities have often failed to introduce lasting policy changes.
Authorities took steps last year to eliminate the use of “social support” fees, a type of penalty, paid by single mothers to obtain benefits for their children. But some areas have been slow to adopt the new rules, and regulations may vary because enforcement is left to the discretion of local governments. Recent changes in Chinese law make it illegal to discriminate against the children of single parents, but some women still have to navigate an unsympathetic bureaucracy.
Last year, the landlocked province of Hunan said it would consider providing fertility services for single women, but has made little progress. When Shanghai decided to abandon its policy of granting maternity benefits only to married women, it reversed the decision just weeks later, underscoring how difficult it is for authorities to loosen their grip on family planning.
“On a societal level, it is a threat to the legally recognized institution of marriage and social stability,” said Zheng Mu, an assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore who studies fertility in China.
Ten years ago, Kelly Xie, 36, got married because she wanted to have a child. “I had reached that age at the time, so I was picking and choosing and it seemed like he was the right fit,” she said. Four years later, she gave birth to a daughter, but she was not happy in her marriage.
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Her mother-in-law adored her husband and was quick to criticize Ms. Xie if something was wrong at home, sometimes even calling her at work to complain about the dust in the corner or an unwashed dish in the sink.
Now divorced, Ms. Xie said she would like to have a second child on her own, but her options are limited. One possibility is to travel abroad for in vitro fertilization, or IVF, which can be prohibitively expensive for some women. For now, Ms. Xie searches the Internet in hopes of finding someone willing to help her get pregnant the old-fashioned way.
Providing single mothers with maternity insurance to cover the costs of fertility services such as IVF would be a great source of support for single women, Ms Xie said. In Beijing, for example, married women can now freeze their eggs and get other IVF services subsidized under the city’s health insurance benefits, as part of a new policy to “support fertility.”
IVF is illegal for single women in most of the country, so Li Xueke traveled to Thailand when she was 29 to have the procedure done there. A businesswoman who made her fortune by running modeling schools, Ms. Li told herself that if she hadn’t found a man she wanted to marry before she was 30, she would have a baby on her own. .
She ended up with triplets, and almost three years later, she doesn’t regret her decision.
“I think I’d rather live a high-quality life as a single mother than get married and settle for less,” said Ms. Li, who doesn’t need any financial help from the government and can hire nannies to help care for her children.
But even among China’s most educated and successful women, Ms. Li is an outlier. Many successful women who want to have a child but are discouraged by the country’s policies toward single mothers have decided not to get pregnant.
“If you really want to have a baby without a man,” said Ms. Zhang, a faculty member, “you have to fight for it.”
claire fu Y Zixu Wang contributed research.