January 1 marks the official end of China's one-child policy that for 36 years has forced couples to limit their offspring to slow the country's population growth.
Last week Chinese authorities also decided to drop a plan to ban surrogate motherhood. Now aspiring parents can seek the help of Chinese women to act as surrogate mothers to gestate and give birth to their children.
If China had banned surrogacy, only those Chinese wealthy enough to hire surrogates overseas, in countries such as the United States, would have been able to use the practice.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which is the main law-making body in China, decided last week to withdraw the draft legislation for banning surrogacy. The move was surprising because China rarely reverses itself on a draft law after it has been publicized. Such a move could be seen as the government being indecisive, which could hurt its public image.
“Some members of the Standing Committee argued the surrogacy cannot be totally forbidden,” Zhang Chunsheng, head of legal affairs at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said at a news conference.
Even if there was a law banning it, "rich people would still be able to go abroad to countries where surrogacy is allowed," Zhang said.
Surrogacy usually costs between $125,000 and $175,000 in countries such as the United States. The cost is somewhat less expensive in other countries, such as Thailand, India and Nepal, sources said.
Infertility rates rising
Some legislators argued that domestic surrogacy should be allowed because infertility rates are rising in China, and many aspiring parents need the option to have their own babies. A ban would only encourage the vast black market in the surrogacy business, which often results in exploitation of women, legislators said.
But independent observers took a somewhat different view. The government wants to remove any possible hurdle that comes in the way of its drive to encourage new births, and fight back the aging population phenomenon.
Some estimates show that more than 12 percent of the eligible population are unlikely to have children because of the high rate of infertility and a large number of people preferring to remain single and childless.
“The two-child policy could create greater demand from families to turn to surrogacy if they cannot have children themselves,” Joshua Freedman, research manager at consulting firm China Policy, said. “Legislators seem more concerned with dealing first with the two-child policy and pushing questions about surrogacy to a later date after further discussion.”
Freedman said he thinks the government was merely deferring a decision on banning surrogacy because it was concerned about the ramifications of codifying it into law. It might reconsider the ban idea at a later date, he said.
But there are wider dimensions to the problem of surrogacy. A growing number of women are either unable or unwilling to find husbands but want to have children. These women seek out sperm donations in order to get pregnant.
Many single women have found it extremely difficult to obtain "hukuo," the essential residency permit needed to live anywhere in China, for children born out of wedlock. Chinese law permits only married couples to register newborn babies.
“I got pregnant by the artificial method. But I realized it would not be possible for my baby to get hukuo, or residency permit. So, I went to another country to have the baby,” said a 35-year-old woman surnamed Hui. “I spent a lot of money. But it was worthwhile. At least the child has a clear citizenship [and] will not face hukuo problem in future.”
The government was also worried about how the ban would affect parents whose children died during the decades of one-child policy and are now too old to have another child.