Chen Yifan (a pseudonym), had resigned herself to life as a spinster, never expecting that at the age of 45, she might be able to realize her dream of having a child without being married - and do so legally.
While this manager of a private company in Changchun City, in Northeast China's Jilin Province, has been very successful in her career, her personal life has not gone as hoped. She fell in love with a classmate back in the early 1980s, but was heartbroken when the young man left her. Since then, no man has proven good enough to be her husband. However, though single, she still wants a child of her own. "I burn with envy whenever I see a mother and a child cuddling each other," she says.
In China, feudalism, as a social system, collapsed nearly a century ago when the country became a republic in 1911. But old ideas die slowly. Childbirth outside of wedlock is still frowned upon. Such births are considered "unplanned" under China's family planning law and policy that call for the incorporation of births into government plans for social and economic development as well as the punishment of those having "unplanned births", whether they are married or not.
Chen Yifan's change of luck, however, arrived when the Jilin Provincial People's Congress, the province's highest organ of state power, decided to allow women like her to have a baby. The regulation on Population and Family Planning in Jilin Province, published by the congress in October, has a clause allowing "women (in the province) having reached the legal age for marriage while intending to remain single for life" to give birth with the aid of "legal medical methods".
By "legal medical methods", the regulations mean "assisted reproductive technology" (ART) services such as artificial insemination. Human cloning, however, is illegal in China.
Single women's right
These regulations are, in fact, the first local legislation ever published in China to legalize the right of single women to give birth. For women like Chen Yifan, this local legislation comes as a blessing, but as soon as it was published a heated debate broke out across the country.
According to local officials, 10 years before the latest regulations were published, there had been inquiries from single women about whether they could have "test-tube babies".
"Their demand was strong, even though they were few in numbers. One woman, a teacher, even threatened to sue us if we denied her right to give birth," says Jiang Guomin, director of the Law and Legislation Division of the Jilin Provincial Family Planning Commission.
Jiang admits that the commission was quite sympathetic towards these women. "But," the official says, "in the absence of a family planning law we could not make local legislation allowing women to give birth without getting married first."
Publication of the local legislation immediately touched off a storm of controversy across the country. An opinion poll conducted by a popular website - www.sina.com - shows that 60 per cent of respondents support the latest move by Jilin Province while the rest are opposed to it.
Yang Xianglan, chairwoman of the Jilin Provincial Women's Federation and member of the Legislation Committee of the Jilin Provincial People's Congress, is a staunch proponent of women's rights.
"Chinese women are becoming increasingly independent along with the country's social development," she says. "They have the right to decide independently whether to marry or to remain single, as well as whether to have a baby or to be childless.
"When a woman chooses to be single, that does not mean she should be deprived of the right to give birth," Yang argues.
Meng Fanchao, a professor of law at Northeast Normal University , describes the local legislation as "positive" for the province's social development. However, he has some misgivings about it. "What if the single mother dies when her child is still too young to be financially independent?" he asks. "Who will take care of the child? Should the physiological father be obliged to bring up the child?
"The child, like all children born out of wedlock, should have the right to paternal love and education, as well as the right to know who his or her father is," he says. "How do we handle these problems?"
Professor Fu Xiuhua at the College of Philosophy and Sociology, Jilin University, holds that a child should be the product of parental love and have the right to the love and care of a wholesome family to eventually become a person of integrity. "While giving single women the right to give birth," he says. "this local legislation makes light of the rights and interests of the child."
Others have raised the issue of men's right to give birth. "men and women are equal before the law," Li Xin, a journalist in Beijing, says. "What if a single man wants to have a baby of his own? And what if a woman has regrets after giving birth to a child, and decides to marry after all? Can we deprive her of the right to marriage?"
In response to these misgivings, Zhang Manliang, an official with the Legislation Office of the Jilin Provincial Government, seems well prepared. "No pioneering activity in nature is risk-free," he says. "You cannot give up eating for fear of getting choked."
Zhang believes that the local legislation represents a new step towards protecting the right of the people to give birth.
Besides, the official insists, some of the misgivings are "groundless". "In China," he notes, "those who donate sperm have to sign an agreement with relevant parties to the effect that as physiological fathers, they have no obligation to rear the children produced with their sperm, and neither do they have the right to ask for support from the children."
"The right to give birth is a basic legal right," he argues. "The child's demand for fatherly love is not a right that should be regulated by law."
"If those who have already produced a child through medical assistance change their minds and want to marry," Zhang says, "the Population and Family Planning Law will prohibit them from marrying in order to have a second child."
It is learned that the State Family Planning Commission has reported its views on Jilin Province's legislation to the State Council, China's highest governing body. If the State Council favours the Ministry of Health rules, the National People's Congress will demand a revision of Jilin's legislation.
Jilin is currently the only province where single women like Chen Yifan can have a baby legally. The municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin, Chengdu City and the provinces of Guangzhou, Shaanxi and Henan have made it clear that they will not follow suit, at least not in the near future.
Back in Jilin Province, many people have called the Provincial Family Planning Commission for counselling since the legislation became effective on November 1, 2002, but no one has actually applied.
(Shanghai Star January 3, 2003)