Data released by the National Population and Family Planning Commission shows that at 13 million induced abortions per year, China has the largest number of abortions in the world. What is even more worrying is that the number does not include the 10 million drug induced abortions conducted every year, or those done in unregistered private clinics.
In China, the legal status of abortion means that for women facing an unwanted pregnancy, abortion can seem like the only way out.
A recent survey shows that 50 percent of women who have undergone abortions are under the age of 25. Of these, 65 percent are unmarried and 54.3 percent fell pregnant due to failure to take contraceptive measures. Over half of them have undergone the procedure more than once.
Many young women lack contraceptive knowledge and are unaware of the harmful effects that multiple abortions can have on their health and fertility. For some who have undergone the procedure more than once, abortion is regarded as a sort of contraceptive measure.
China also has a growing population of young women migrant workers who lack sexual knowledge and live far away from the watchful eye of parents. For them, the 1,000 yuan (US$ 160.5) price tag of an abortion makes the procedure costly in both financial and physical terms.
A fertility survey by the China Population Association shows that among women who ask for help with fertility issues, most are between 25 and 30. For these women, the top cause of infertility is tubal obstructions caused by infection after a septic abortion.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that the country's lack of sex education is a major contributor to the number of unwanted pregnancies that are aborted each year. According to data from the Chinese Population and Education Center, 74 percent of high school students have never received 'the talk' from their parents and 49 percent of adolescents mainly gain their sex knowledge from the Internet.
Innocent Girls
When 13-year-old Ah Wen went to the Hainan Provincial Teenage Girl Accidental Pregnancy Help Center in Haikou, capital of south China's Hainan Province, accompanied by her parents, she seemed aloof and disconnected, while her parents were angry and embarrassed.
Ah Wen had been feeling sick and throwing up. When her parents took her to a hospital, they discovered she was 50 days pregnant. The news plunged them into deep shame.
When the doctor privately asked Ah Wen how she got pregnant, she simply replied, "I don't know either. I thought it would be fun so I slept with a boy from my class."
Unlike Ah Wen, 15-year-old Xiao Lin came to the help center alone. She told the doctor that she had accidentally fallen pregnant and wanted to get an abortion without her parents knowing.
But the doctor explained to her that the procedure would require her parents' signed consent as she was still a minor. "I cannot let my parents know about this. It will hurt them and they will never forgive me. They raised me and I don't want to hurt them," Xiao Lin said. She left without getting the procedure done at the clinic.
For young women who are of age, not needing parental consent means that some undergo multiple abortions. Fangfang left home to find a job when she was 17. She moved in with her aunt, but met her boyfriend the following year and began living with him. Three months later, she discovered she was pregnant.
"I didn't dare to tell my aunt. My boyfriend accompanied me to the hospital. The procedure was fast - all I had to do was 'sleep' on the surgery table for half an hour and it was all over the next day," she said.
Fang did not think it was a big deal. Over the next three years, she 'slept' on the surgery table six more times. "I didn't know how to take contraceptive measures. Later, I tried oral contraceptives and condoms. But I still had to get an abortion once in a while. I didn't know that it would affect my body," she said.
Three days after her last induced abortion, she was sent back to the hospital because of a massive hemorrhage. Doctors saved her life but told her that the multiple abortions had done irreversible damage to her endometrium and it would be difficult for her to get pregnant again.
Yu Ruiping, director of the Hainan Provincial Teenage Girl Accidental Pregnancy Help Center, says that most of the girls who come to the center have no proper knowledge of sex and some are so naive that they believe pregnancy can be prevented by washing themselves after sex.
"They don't know how to take a mature view of sexual behavior or how to say no when pressured to have sex. They also don't know how to protect themselves afterwards. Moreover, they usually do not dare to tell their parents and don't take any steps to terminate the pregnancy in time," said Yu.
Approved by the Hainan Provincial Health Department and the Hainan Women's Federation, the center was established in 2005 at the Hainan Modern Women and Children Hospital in Haikou with the aim of helping young women facing an unwanted pregnancy.
The center runs a hotline to help these girls. Although the hotline is not allowed to ask for their age, it is estimated that 80 percent of the callers are minors, just from the questions they ask.
According to the center, most of these teenage girls want the center to help but are reluctant to tell their parents the truth, posing a dilemma for the center as abortions require a guardian's signature if involving a minor.
"We've consulted with lawyers. Without the signature, all the consequences would have to be borne by the center," Yu said.
A survey shows that 53.65 percent of teenage girls who fall pregnant turn to their boyfriends for help, 25.48 percent confide in their friends and only 11.74 percent turn to their parents.
Sex Education
Fu Ming, a psychology professor from Hainan University, said, "Sex is beautiful and natural, but minors need to wait until they are ready for it. They need to be prepared physically, mentally and emotionally. This all relies on sound sex education."
Yu, also president of the Hainan Modern Women and Children Hospital, said that young children need to be encouraged to socialize with mutual respect. When in middle school, teachers should teach children how to deal with their relationships with the opposite sex and help them realize that normal social contact with the opposite sex is just an aspect of being part of society.
"For these girls, getting pregnant is a mistake, but they still have to continue with life. Society has to face facts and give them the concern and help they need," Yu added.
According to statistics from the World Health Organization, 14 million adolescent girls give birth, 550,000 miscarry and 4.4 million undergo abortions around the world annually.
Each year, China sees 20 million young people enter sexual maturity. For the majority, sex education is something they vitally need and have never received. For some of this majority, their ignorance will lead them to the surgery table and to consequences which may last the rest of their lives.
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