Copyright 2005 – The New York Times — Published 2/12/2005
GUIYANG, China – The warning hanging above a main street could not have been more blunt, its big white characters set off against a bright red banner promising to “firmly crack down on the criminal activity of drowning and other ways of brutally killing female babies.”
Just across the way, though, in equally large letters, the advertisement above a medical clinic promoted ultrasound tests, which have long been used in China to detect the sex of babies, as a prelude to aborting female fetuses. “I don’t know what happens elsewhere, but we don’t do gender tests here,” said a 48-year-old doctor who gave her name only as Li. “Our equipment can’t detect the sex before six months. The machine is too small.”
Beginning in January, this city enacted a pioneering ban on abortions after the 14th week of pregnancy, part of a campaign to address one of the world’s biggest gaps between male and female childbirths that, though piecemeal, is quickly gathering momentum across China. National laws already prohibit sonograms for gender detection, which becomes possible after the 14th week, but the law has been spottily enforced.
“The current situation has severely affected the city’s population and family planning work,” Luo Zhuyun, the city’s deputy mayor, said in a recent interview with the Guiyang Dushibao, a local newspaper. “It has also had a great impact on the local economy, the use of resources and the prospects for sustainable development. There is no time to delay.”
If anything, though, the experience of Guiyang reveals how difficult a task China faces in trying to fine-tune its 25-year-old “one-child policy,” one of the most ambitious social engineering measures ever attempted.
Judged against the goal of slowing the growth of China’s population, which is the world’s largest, the policy has been a great success. Chinese planners appear to have underestimated the urge of couples to have sons, though, a desire that drives many to desperate lengths. And a result has been a human and public health disaster, with the large-scale abortion of female fetuses and the routine killing or abandonment of baby girls.
Given the strength of this desire for male heirs, Guiyang’s bid to rein in its gender imbalance – 129 boys born for every 100 girls, and 147 to 100 for couples seeking second or third children – might seem doomed in advance. Gynecology clinics offering ultrasound tests do a flourishing business in this city, and are more common in many neighborhoods than convenience stores. Try as one may to find one, though, nary a doctor here acknowledges engaging in the practice of sex detection.
It was an unusually slow day for Dr. Wang Jin at his thriving, two-storefront clinic in Wangchengpo, a cluttered hillside neighborhood favored by rural migrants, where a dozen clinics compete for the ultrasound and abortion business. “Almost everyone wants to know the gender of their child,” Dr. Wang said, interrupting his hotpot pork lunch to speak with a visitor. “Out of 100 people, perhaps 90 ask. With migrant workers it is 100 percent.”
The doctor said he performed as many as 400 abortions a year in his crowded, crudely furnished clinic, where women disappear in shallow stalls behind skimpy blue curtains for examinations. It costs $17 for the basic service, or twice that amount for what Dr. Wang called a “painless abortion,” meaning one with anesthesia.
Dr. Wang, whose foot tapped nervously throughout a 45-minute conversation, said he performed the procedure for unmarried women who became pregnant and for women who, for job-related reasons, did not wish to have a child. But like every doctor spoken to here, he denied ever performing a selective-sex abortion for any patient, or for that matter, even performing a sonogram gender test for a woman. The most he would allow is that he is often asked.
Dr. Wang said that patients, who are usually aware that sonogram gender exams are proscribed, came in and asked bluntly, “How much money do you need?”
Although he steadfastly denied performing the tests, he implicitly acknowledged that the temptation for some would be too strong to suppress. “It’s impossible for regulations to stop abortion,” he said. “Most Chinese people are law abiding, but there are doctors who will be willing to do this, although very few.”
The next day, during an unannounced visit, a woman was found in the midst of an ultrasound test at the clinic. “What do you mean by asking do I prefer a boy or a girl?” said the patient, Wang Wanqing, who gave her age as 20, but looked considerably younger. “It makes no difference. My husband feels the same way.”
Yang Junchang, an expert in population studies at Guiyang University, praised the local initiative, but said the problem evaded quick fixes. “The reason people want a boy is because the level of economic development is low and the social security system is flawed,” Mr. Yang said. “A boy is a fortune and a resource to a family. People wanting a sex check in order to have a boy will certainly continue, and if Guiyang disallows it, they will go somewhere else.”
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