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Abortions up in China as taboos weaken

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Parallel to the economic revolution in China is a sexual revolution, particularly among youth, which is having far-reaching consequences on their health and quality of life. Since feu- dal times, sex has been a taboo subject in China. Even today, despite progress in many areas, many Chinese, especially the older generations, consider sex shameful or dirty and refuse to talk about it. Young people’s opinions differ greatly from those of their parents. At the same time, boys and girls are becoming sexually mature at a younger age.

An increasing number of Chinese adolescents are engaging in premarital and unprotected sexual activity. As a result, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, are on the rise. China is now in the early stages of a major HIV/AIDS epidemic.

It is estimated that more than 240 million people in China are between 15 and 24, and that some 20 million more people enter adolescence every year. Such an significant segment of the population needs to be informed about sexual matters. A survey conducted by the State Family Planning Commission among 7,000 people, ages 15 to 49, found that 89.2 percent of respondents in cities and 74.6 percent in the countryside agreed that high schools should offer sex education courses. Yet, only in recent years have the first textbooks on sex education been published and distributed in schools.

Not only is the rate of underage pregnancies growing, but the age at which adolescents become pregnant is declining. In some hospitals, up to 40 percent of those receiving abortion operations are unmarried mothers.

Worldwide, an estimated 14 million adolescent girls give birth every year, while about 4.4 million girls have abortions. The 2001 edition of the Almanac of China’s Health reports that approximately 10 million induced abortions are performed annually in China — with 20 to 30 percent done on unmarried young women.

Under Chinese law, a parent or guardian must approve an abortion performed on a girl of 18 or younger. Thus many pregnant girls who fear their family’s reaction go to back-street abortionists or quacks that may endanger a girl’s life.

Some risk factors increase the probability of adolescent pregnancy, such as familial instability, the adolescent pregnancy of a sister, a mother with a history of adolescent pregnancy, pressure from friends, low socio-economic status, ignorance of one’s own physiology and the use of contraception, poor communication with parents and a lack of discussion of sexual problems.

Unwanted pregnancy in adolescents can have devastating effects because it delays or halts an adolescent’s personal development. There is loss of autonomy and more dependence on parents. Group relations are interrupted since pregnant adolescents cannot continue their normal activities at school or work.

Education continues to be one of the most powerful weapons by which young people learn to develop an optimal state of physical and mental health. To be effective, educational materials about sex must be reviewed periodically and their message adapted to the various social and cultural groups they address.

Because sex has been a taboo subject for so long in Chinese society, some parents themselves should be educated not only about sexual issues but also on how to maintain a productive dialogue with their children and how to keep the communication channels open.

The mass media could help remove the taboo regarding adolescent sexuality by helping to redefine social norms and modifying attitudes. There should be constant discussion among parents, teachers, and health and social workers in programs that involve adolescents.