Chinese authorities have sacked family planning officials involved in forcing a young woman to abort her seven month-old foetus — a case that triggered nationwide outrage and reignited debate over family planning laws.

While critics of China’s family planning policies say forced abortions, widely prevalent in the 1980s, are still routinely enforced in rural areas, Feng Jianmei’s case sparked a storm after photographs of her in a hospital bed, lying next to her aborted baby, circulated through micro blogs.

Once it emerged that officials had abducted Ms. Feng (23) in Zhenping, a county in Shaanxi province, after her husband was unable to pay the authorities a 40,000-yuan (Rs. 3.6 lakh) fine, netizens and activists demanded government action. The fine was imposed on the couple for breaking family planning laws.

Authorities in the Ankang municipal government, which oversees the county, said on Wednesday that they had sacked Jiang Nenghai, the head of the family planning bureau of Zhenping, and suspended at least four other officials.

State media reported that an investigation found that the township government “used crude means to violate her intentions”, adding that there was “no legal basis for the township government’s demand that Ms. Feng and her family pay a deposit of 40,000 yuan for a certificate allowing her to have her second child”.

Under China’s family planning policies, rural residents can have two children only if their firstborn is a girl, while urban residents can have a second child only if both parents are the only children of their parents. While Ms. Feng had a daughter in 2007, she held an urban residence certificate which disallowed her from having a second child, officials said.

Forced abortions were commonly performed during the 1980s, when family planning policies began to be strictly enforced. In recent years, authorities have — at least in urban areas — largely phased out forced abortions, resorting to fines. In rural areas, where local officials strictly enforce population targets — the meeting of which can determine their career prospects — forced abortions are still known to take place.

While Ms. Feng’s case outraged urban Chinese, those from the provinces were less surprised.

“These measures are common in many villages,” said a migrant worker from Anhui (a poor southern province), who now works in Beijing. She declined to be identified.

“Sometimes, forced abortions occur, but only in extreme cases,” she said. “It is more common for officials to use threats and kidnap family members to persuade women to have an abortion,” she added. “The fines are too heavy for farmers, so few people can afford to pay them.”

Ms. Feng’s case has reignited debate about whether China should persist with its controversial family planning policies. According to Yang Zhizhu, a professor at the China Youth University for Political Sciences who has challenged the legality of family planning penalties, an increasing number of scholars, activists and ordinary citizens — with growing awareness of their rights — are questioning the enforcement of family planning rules, particularly with declining fertility rates across most cities.

Officials have ruled out ending family planning rules, which are enforced by a vast bureaucracy and generate millions of yuan in income every year. They have, however, hinted at easing restrictions. Officials have begun to encourage families in some cities, like Shanghai, to have two children with increasing concerns about a rapidly ageing society.

The government estimates that the policy has prevented 400 million births over three decades, sparing China a huge burden on resources. More conservative estimates by scholars place the figure at half that number with naturally declining fertility rates on account of urbanisation.

Critics say that despite any benefits, the violation of fundamental human rights through practices such as forced abortions is reason enough to end family planning policies.

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