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UCL China Centre for Health and Humanity


UCL's interdisciplinary centre for education and research on health and the body in China, and China’s impact on world health, past, present and future


Reflections on Abortion in China

By Penny Barrett, on 2 March 2017

Author: Huang Qin 黄沁


 AbortionOn Thursday 9 February, a thought-provoking lecture about abortion in China was delivered at UCL by Cong Yali 丛亚丽, a professor at Peking University and one of China’s leading bioethicists. Prof. Cong introduced her research on abortion in China and explained the reasons why Chinese people seem to exhibit indifference to the performance of abortion. She stated that in traditional Chinese culture, the foetus, rather than being regarded as a human, was frequently considered as an instrument for the continuation of a clan. In addition she said, in contemporary China, no law existed to protect the foetus’s right to life, and abortion was not a crime. Thus performing an abortion was more of a family decision than a public ethical issue or a legal issue in China.

Despite the widespread apathy among the Chinese public towards the performance of abortion, Chinese scholars like Cong have paid increasing attention to issues surrounding abortion in China since the 1980s. The number of publications on abortion which contain keywords such as ‘right to life’, and ‘reproductive rights’ has increased dramatically since 2000. Moreover, studies on abortion in China are carried out not only in the field of medical science but also in demography, law, politics, etc.[1] These statistics indicate that abortion in China tends to be an interdisciplinary research topic and is bound to resonate with legal, historical as well as ethical issues.

Abortion in China, from a historical perspective, has moved from being a private matter to a national plan. In both the Ming dynasty and the Qing dynasty, having or performing an abortion was a personal affair, and the government did not intervene in this issue. However, as laws of European countries and Japan were introduced to China in the late Qing dynasty, the Qing government promulgated the New Criminal Law in 1911, which first treated the practice of abortion as a crime. Then in the Republican period, people who underwent or performed an abortion were punished according to the Criminal Law of the Republic of China. In 1935, heavy penalties were imposed on anyone who forced a pregnant woman to have an abortion according to the revised Criminal Law of the Republic of China. Some intellectuals such as Song Guobin 宋国宾 at that time also argued that the foetus had the right to life, while some traditional scholars believed that imposing punishments for abortion could help maintain the traditional ethical order and public morality. Some nationalists were also against abortion in view of the declining population. Due to these legislative measures and social concepts, physicians refused to perform abortions and women in need turned to unqualified abortionists.[2] Later, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the one-child policy also affected Chinese people’s abortion behaviour. Thus, abortion issues have gradually entered the national discourse since the late Qing dynasty with the influence of the ideas from European countries and the notion of national renewal.

From the legal perspective, abortion is not regarded as a crime in contemporary China according to the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China. The general theories of Chinese criminal law provide that human life begins at birth and ends with death. On this point, a foetus is not regarded as a human being and does not have human rights. However, some Chinese jurists such as Zhou Xiang 周详 think that people commit intentional homicide when they force a pregnant woman to have an abortion or a pregnant woman decides to have an abortion because of gender selection while the foetus is physically able to survive outside the uterus. [3]

In bioethics, scholars like Quan Linchun 权麟春 have highlighted the power of the weak and the wholeness and completeness of humanhood, asserting that these basic bioethical principles indicate that the foetus should be regarded as human and have its own moral status and enjoy the right to life.[4]

Studies on abortion in China, which have been carried out in various disciplines, have shown the complexity of abortion issues. As abortion practices are always intertwined with legal, political, and ethical problems, cooperation between different academic institutions as well as various academic fields is significant in addressing problems in abortion behaviour. Therefore, Prof. Cong Yali’s lecture has not only deepened people’s understanding of abortion issues in China, but also will promote cooperation on bioethics between international academic institutions like UCL and PKU.




Long Wei 龙伟 2012, Duotai feifa: minguo shiqi de duotai zui ji qi sifa shijian 堕胎非法:民国时期的堕胎罪及其司法实践 (Unlawful Abortion: the Crime of Abortion in the Republican Period and Its Judicial Practice), (1), Modern Chinese History Studies, 92-104.

Quan Linchun 权麟春 2011, Duotai yu shengming zunyan zhi wo jian 堕胎与生命尊严之我见 (My View on Abortion and Dignity of Life), 32(12), Medicine and Philosophy, 21-23.

Zhou Xiang 周详 2012, Tai’er “shengming quan” de queren yu xingfa baohu 胎儿“生命权”的确认与刑法保护 (Foetus’s “Right to Life” and Its Protection in Criminal Law), (8), Law Science, 51-60.


[1] I used “duotai 堕胎” (abortion) as the key word to extract publication records for the period 1894 to present in the CNKI database.

[2] Long 2012, pp. 92-104.

[3] Zhou 2012, pp. 51-60.

[4] Quan 2011, pp. 21-23.

Huang Qin 黄沁 is a postgraduate student on the MA course in Chinese Health and Humanity (2016–17).

Abortion in China

By Penny Barrett, on 23 February 2017

Authors: Heather Au Yeung So Hung 欧阳素红 and Li Yilin 李一琳

Is abortion a serious problem in China?

This question was addressed by Cong Yali 丛亚丽, Professor of Medical Ethics and Deputy Director of the Institute of Medical Humanities, PKU, in her presentation and seminar on ‘Abortion: A Historical Reflection’ on 9 February 2017. Organised by UCL’s China Centre for Health and Humanity, this event was introduced by Dr Vivienne Lo.


The evening began with a discussion of the Hong Kong movie Dumplings (Jiaozi 饺子) by Fruit Chan 陈果 a black comedy depicting a woman who eats aborted foetuses to stay young and beautiful and the social and ethical issues that it raises.

Prof. Cong’s presentation fell into four parts: a 2003 study on abortion; ideas about the life and personhood of the foetus; historical analysis; and the One-Child Policy and Two-Child Policy: implications for the future.

She began by presenting some facts and figures for abortion at Shengjing 盛京 hospital in north-east China, where the number of abortions rose from 354 to 4597 between 2003 and 2013, and the number of women under 20 undergoing abortions rose from 60 in 2003 to 209 in 2013. She went on to discuss a study on ‘Modern Chinese Views on Life’ carried out at Peking University in 2003. Interviews were conducted with 18 people, who were divided into three groups by education level. Two of the groups included women who had undergone abortions. The results of the interviews showed that, first, the concepts of ‘life’ and ‘human being’ were not differentiated by the interviewees, but they rejected the idea that abortion could be equated with murder; second, most of the interviewees regarded abortion as a necessary consequence of the One-Child Policy, and were not therefore motivated to think deeply about the ethical implications; last, older and less well-educated interviewees were more inclined to object to abortion.

Prof. Cong said that the dilemma concerns whether abortion is killing, in any sense: the killing of the foetus as a ‘life’, whether or not it is considered to be a ‘person’. She used historical analysis to explain general views of the value of the foetus. In China, life has traditionally been considered to begin at birth, as is illustrated, for example, by the Xunzi, ‘Lilun pian’ 荀子·礼论篇 (Ritual Principles). In other words, the foetus is not treated as ‘human’ in ancient Chinese texts.

Examining the attitudes of the ancients towards the foetus from literary texts
Prof. Cong cited a famous passage in Hanshu 汉书, juan 97, which tells of Empress Zhao Feiyan  赵飞燕 and her sister Zhao Hede 赵合德, consorts of Emperor  Cheng of the Han Dynasty 汉成帝, who forced their rivals to have abortions to safeguard their own status.

The foetus itself did not have an independent role in society, but depended on its potential social relations. It was usually considered as a means rather than an end in itself.

Summing up
The moral status of the foetus itself did not generally feature as a fundamental factor in considerations on abortion. While ordinary people often opted for abortion because of poverty, their rulers were inclined to protect the foetus and punish abortionists for social and political purposes (to increase the population and levy taxes, etc.).

Furthermore, from literary texts, it can be seen that the foetus was regarded as both a political victim and a political tool in Palace struggles, and was protected as a potential clansman who could perpetuate the clan. Whether the foetus itself was a living being or not was irrelevant; what mattered was its agency.

The attitudes of the ancients towards the foetus do not point directly to the foetus itself, but to variations in social relations after it is born.

This reminds us that, besides reflecting on the right or wrongs of abortion, we should be sensitive to the reasons and logic of the actors involved.

Sex-selection abortion
According to the Mencius, the worst of the three ingratitudes towards one’s parents was not to have a child (‘不孝有三, 无孝为大’). To perpetuate the clan and its bloodline was to fulfil the historical mission and responsibilities that were inherited and passed on by male family members.

Related to this is the phenomenon of gender selection. The mission of perpetuating the clan was accomplished by giving birth to a boy, while a married daughter was ‘spilt water’, and girls were not included in the family tree of their birth family. Moreover, in peasant communities, boys took on the key role in agricultural labour, so this phenomenon was also a response to the concrete pressures of life in rural areas.

Abortion and modern family structure
With the decline of traditional culture  and revolutionary changes in family structure, the patriarchal clan system has largely disintegrated. Today, family structure is mainly centred on the nuclear family. One consequence of this is that married women now have far more autonomy, which includes the decision to have an abortion.

Birth control policies
Prof. Cong concluded by explaining the relationship between abortion and the One-Child birth-control policy introduced in the 1980s, pointing out the issues of skewed sex ratios, from the traditional preference for male offspring to a recent trend, among urban couples, to prefer daughters. The One-Child Policy was eased in 2013, and replaced in October 2015 by the current Two-Child Policy. New research is now called for, Prof. Cong said, in order to understand how and to what extent these policy changes will affect abortion.

Heather Au Yeung So Hung 欧阳素红 and Li Yilin 李一琳 are postgraduate students on the MA course in Chinese Health and Humanity (2016–17).

Daoists, Doctors and Deviants in Early Medieval China

By Penny Barrett, on 5 July 2013

Author: Michael Stanley-Baker 徐源

Medicine and Religion were not discrete categories in early medieval China, as many religious sects practised a broad range of therapeutic skills in addition to funerary ritual, salvational rites and cultivation regimes designed to produce Transcendents (xianren 仙人), divinised humans with paranormal powers.  This video clip by Centre associate Michael Stanley-Baker was originally produced for the History of Medicine in Motion workshop hosted jointly by UCL and the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine. It describes a range of early Chinese therapeutic practices, and the central role of Qi 氣 as a unifying concept across these various traditions, and it contrasts some core practices used by Doctors and Daoists that can be found in early sources.

Science and Religion in China

By Penny Barrett, on 4 July 2013

Author: Michael Stanley-Baker 徐源

The encounter of Western sciences with religion and with traditional Chinese worldviews has a long history in Chinese studies, or Sinology.  Jesuit missionaries  in the 16th and 17th centuries utilised European astronomy, mathematics and cartography in their attempts to convince the Chinese Imperial court of the superiority of Christianity. In the 20th century, Joseph Needham identified the indigenous philosophy of Daoism as the intellectual fount of natural inquiry in China, although in doing so, he also excluded many of the more religious elements of Daoism. This video clip by Centre associate Michael Stanley-Baker describes new avenues in the historiography of Chinese science and religion, and presents one example from his fieldwork that demonstrates how the discourse of science is being used to legitimise Daoism as a viable counterpart in Chinese visions of modernity. This video was originally prepared for a panel on Science and Religion in the Association for Asian Studies, 2011.

Hello world!

By Penny Barrett, on 21 June 2013

Welcome to the blog of the UCL China Centre for Health and Humanity!