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Chinese Couples Use Fertility Treatment To Cheat 'One-Child' System

China shows no sign of abandoning its strict population control program known as the one-child policy. But an increasing number of couples have found a way to circumvent the system - they take fertility drugs that can lead to multiple births. The number of twins and triplets in China is rising rapidly. And even those who only want one child are turning to fertility treatment.

For seven years, 34-year-old Song Hua from Beijing tried in vain to have a child. In-vitro fertilization finally helped her get pregnant. Song proudly strokes her huge belly.

She says she is expecting twin girls.

Song has been doubly lucky. If she had been able to get pregnant naturally she would only have been allowed one child under China's strict population policy.

Under the system, which was introduced in 1979, couples in rural areas can have a second child if the first one is a girl. But city dwellers like Song have to pay hefty fines for number two and could face forced abortions.

Parents who have twins and triplets, however, are exempt from the rule and an increasing number of urban couples are exploiting this loophole.

China's media say that the number of multiple births has increased rapidly across the country. In one maternity hospital in the eastern city of Nanjing, for example, 90 sets of twins and triplets were reportedly born last year, compared with the usual average of 20 annually.

One reason for the spike is that an increasing number of childless women - like Song Hua - are turning to techniques such as in-vitro fertilization, which lead to a higher incidence of multiple births.

But more and more women who are able to have children naturally are buying fertility drugs in the hope of giving birth to more than one child. Alarmed by the trend, health authorities banned over-the-counter sales of fertility pills in pharmacies last year. But media reports say they are still widely available.

Qiao Jie is director of Beijing University's Third Hospital reproductive-health center, China's leading fertility clinic. Like many Chinese health experts, Dr. Qiao is worried about the trend.

She confirms that some women take fertility drugs to have more than one child but they do not know how dangerous it can be for the mother and the children to be pregnant with twins or triplets. She says her hospital informs the public about this and only gives fertility drugs to women who cannot ovulate.

The majority of the patients in Dr. Qiao's clinic, however, would be happy to have just one child. Many of them have tried to become pregnant for years.

Patients in the crammed waiting room of the clinic are watching a video about in-vitro fertilization. China's first test-tube baby was born in this clinic in 1988. Up to 600 patients from all over China visit the hospital each day. Many have already been unsuccessfully treated in provincial clinics or by traditional Chinese doctors.

Being childless remains a stigma for women in China, particularly in the countryside.

This 38-year-old patient, a farmer from northern Henan province, says she felt she was not fulfilling her duty as a woman. She says not being able to give birth means she is not a complete woman.

Dr. Qiao says there has been a dramatic rise in the number of patients seeking help in her clinic in recent years.

She says this does not mean infertility is on the rise. What has changed is that the topic is less of a taboo today.

Qiao says in the past, because of traditional Chinese culture, people did not want others to know that they could not get pregnant. They would often say they simply did not want a child.

Today, an increasing number of childless couples actively seek help from fertility experts.

But Dr. Qiao discourages those patients who hope to give birth to twins through in-vitro fertilization. She says only 40 percent of IVF treatments are successful, and out of those successful pregnancies, 80 percent result in only one child.