Premarital Abortion—What is the Harm? The Responsibilisation of Women’s Pregnancy Among China’s “Privileged” Daughters

Kailing Xie

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Abstract:  In the West, women’s safe access to abortion services is central to the debate around reproductive freedom. In China, easy access to abortion arrived hand-in-hand with the one-child policy in 1979 as part of the Party-state’s birth control programme. Based on interviews with 31 women and 11 men from the well-educated 1980s generation, and using vignettes to explore attitudes towards premarital sex and abortion in the context of an increasingly sexualized popular culture, and the acceptability of premarital sex but lack of safe sex knowledge, I illustrate a strictly moralised discourse around female sexuality, where the normalisation of abortion practice does not translate into public acceptance of premarital abortion for women. I argue that the responsibilisation of women’s pregnancy reflects persistent patriarchal values and the state’s regulatory power over women’s reproductive bodies. While the heterosexual family remains the only legitimate site for reproduction, Chinese women’s reproductive freedom is subjugated to the priority of maintaining social stability. Hence, permissiveness over premarital abortion should not be simply understood as moral approval of abortion practice, but reflects pragmatic attitudes under a restrictive regime. I further argue that the Chinese case shows that a more nuanced, contextualised approach to understanding reproductive rights is necessary.

Keywords:  China; one-child policy; premarital abortion; responsible motherhood; sexual morality; state.