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Honoring Wishes of Single Women
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Debate over the Population and Family Planning Regulation of Northeast China's Jilin Province has dragged on since it became an issue at the start of the month.

Controversy focuses on the stipulation that single women above the legal marriage age, without kids and not wanting to get married later in their lives, can give birth to a child through legal medical-assisted reproductive techniques.

Technically, there is no difficulty for women to get pregnant without a partner. Sperm banks have been established, artificial insemination and test-tube babies are nothing new and are affordable.

But legally and morally, single women's rights to reproduce is still in a gray area.

Two years back, Ye Fan, a well-educated single woman in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, asked for artificial insemination. Lacking legal support, her wish was not fulfilled.

Ye and those single women sharing her wish, though small in number, raised the issue to lawmakers.

The People's Congress of Jilin Province, the local legislature, found the claims were legal and endorsed them.

"This stipulation aims to protect citizen's fertility rights to the maximum," said Zhang Manliang, division chief of the Legislative Affairs Bureau of Jilin Province and advocator of the stipulation.

Wu Changzhen, an expert in marriage law and professor with the University of Political Science and Law of China, hailed the Jilin legislation as "a progress of legislation to protect women's rights."

"If there are strong voices for artificial insemination by unmarried women in a certain region, it is worth experiencing to bring this circumstance into the track of legislation," Wu said.

"All these should be acceptable and won't cause disorder in legislation."

Supporters believe they are on firm legal ground thanks to Article 17 of the country's Population and Family Planning Law that took effect in September.

"Citizens have the right to reproduction, as well as the responsibility for practicing family planning according to law," it says.

Jilin, like other provinces, was acting with full authorization to work out its own rules to execute the national law locally.

But dissenting voices were heard.

For one, Xin Chunying, deputy-director of the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is strongly against it.

"You cannot talk about fertility rights without marriage in China," she said.

As the most populous country in the world, China adopted Family Planning as its basic State policy 30 years ago.

Under effective control, China's birth rate and natural growth rate decreased from 33.43 people per thousand and 25.83 people per thousand in 1970 to 15.23 and 8.77 in 1999.

But it still remains a tough job for China to feed 21 prcent of the world's population with less than 10 prcent of world's cultivated land. Thus control on population growth remains a core concern under the new population law.

Zhai Zhengwu, director of the Institute of Population Research at the People's University, said: "When we mention the right of reproduction in the Population and Family Planning Law, we mean the reproduction behavior of a legal couple. The Jilin regulation seems to be going a bit far from the original idea of the national law."

Although all reproduction laws and policies are based on the assumption it takes place between married couples, no precondition was prescribed when the new national law was introduced.

An official with the State Family Planning Commission told reporters the Jilin bill is under re-examination by the Legislation Affairs Office of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

But Zhang Wenxian, vice-president of Jilin University and an expert in law who has directly participated in the formulation of the Jilin regulation, said there is no excess of authority nor contravention to the national law from the legislation.

"Jilin's stipulation is just clear indication and specification of the fertility rights guaranteed by the State law," he said in an article in last week's Nanfang Weekend.

And so far, no one seems able to deny the legitimacy of the regulation.

But many more questions have been raised for lawmakers in Jilin to answer.

What about men's rights to reproduction and other issues like cloning? Are they legal, in the spirit of human rights and to be written into law?

Beyond legislation, there is one practical concern -- will the regulation work?

"So far, the stipulation has not provided any protection for the unmarried mother or the child. It will only bring about chaos and embarrassment," Xin argued.

Traditional China still finds it hard to accept children who do not know who their fathers are.

Feng Xiaotian, professor of sociology with Nanjing University, said reproduction is not only a matter for a mother, but also a social behavior that brings social consequences.

"An incomplete family will bring certain congenital deficiency to the growth and life of the child, which they will not be willing to but still have to accept and which the single mothers cannot avoid and also will not be able to mend," Feng said.

Peking University Professor Xia Xueluan said: "Why should we support such behavior that could cause a series of social problems? How can we call it a progress?"

Individual rights are an increasingly popular topic in present-day China. But opponents of the Jilin law contend that fulfilling individual rights should not do harm to others and society.

Zhang does not think that is really a problem: "Our stipulation is about the legal medical-assisted childbearing rights of unmarried women, not child-bearing in the normal sense. No men in reality ever bring up such requests so we confine it to women for the time being. And there will only be a very limited number of such cases, which does not hurt the whole effectiveness of the nation's family planning program."

There will not be an end to the debate until the national legislature comes up with a conclusion of its own.

That an issue like this was ultimately discussed by lawmakers and has become a topic of nationwide discourse, however, is inspiring.

Open discussion on such issues not only better acquaint lawmakers with public concerns, but make legislation more responsive to them.

Whatever the national legislature will say about the Jilin law, the bill itself marks a valuable step forward in China's lawmaking.

At the very least, it deserves applause for its recognition of the legal rights of a minority.

(China Daily November 29, 2002)

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