XI’AN, China—The leaf-strewn median on Eternal Peace Road hides a grim secret: Numerous tiny fetuses lie in unmarked graves dug by women from the abortion clinic across the street.
The staff at the small clinic in the heart of this ancient city don’t bury most of the fetuses—only those that have reached three or four months, when they clearly resemble miniature babies.
“This big,” says anesthesiologist Liu Jianmin, using her thumb and index finger to measure out the length of a lipstick tube. The burials are a gesture of respect for lives cut short, she adds, and the patients aren’t told.
It is a secret hiding in plain sight, much like the rising rate of abortions among young, unmarried women in China.
While comprehensive data are hard to come by, official figures show abortions are increasing, and Chinese media and experts say many, if not most, of the abortion-seekers are young, single women.
That’s a change from the past, when abortion was used mainly to enforce the government’s one child per couple limit. Today, students are clearly a client base: The Beijing Modern Women’s Hospital offers a government-subsidized “Safe & Easy A+” discount abortion package at 880 yuan ($130). Others advertise in college handbooks.
According to a government tally, 9.2 million abortions were performed in 2008, up from 7.6 million in 2007. But the count only includes hospitals, and state media report the total could be as high as 13 million. If accurate, that would give China among the highest abortion rates in the world.
Many blame the trend on newly liberal attitudes toward premarital sex, and lagging sex education. Bureaucratic red tape and social stigma also deter single women from having a child on their own, and laws bar women from marriage until they are 20, making teen pregnancy virtually unheard of. These factors and a lack of stigma surrounding abortion, or “artificial miscarriage,” as it’s known here, have helped make it a relatively cheap, widely available option for birth control.
“The moral outrage over having a child before marriage in our society is much stronger than the shame associated with abortion,” said Zhou Anqin, the manager at the clinic in Xi’an, which performs about 60 abortions each month, mostly on students aged 24 or younger.
The two-story facility, which opened in 2007, is one of five operated in China by Marie Stopes International, a London-based not-for-profit group that runs hundreds of clinics globally promoting safe abortions, HIV testing and other services. The fetuses that aren’t buried are discarded as medical waste, as they are in the United States and other countries.