Sex selective abortions in Taiwan

Posted on 11 January 2012


By Simon Cotterill
The Foreign Desk – International dispatches from Independent correspondents –
Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 10:40 am

Last year, Taiwan’s fertility rate became the world’s lowest, dropping from 1.03 in 2010 to a record low of just 0.9 in 2011. The government blamed the decreasing birth rate on people’s superstitions about which zodiac years were best for bearing children. It seems many people were waiting for the year of the dragon, which starts next week and is considered a particularly auspicious period to be born in.

However, the government does not seem to want to leave an increase in the birth rate to chance. They have now put official measures in place which they hope will not only ensure a higher birth rate, but will also mean more girls are born.

Sex-selective abortions in Taiwan create a serious gender imbalance, which is second only to that of China. Between 2004 and 2010, the Taiwanese gender ratio at birth was between 108 and 112 boys for every 100 girls, compared to the worldwide average ratio of around 106 males to 100 females. The government estimated that there were around 3,000 ‘missing’ female babies each year.

Taiwan has an amazingly high number of abortions each year. The official figure is around 90,000 but experts estimate more than 300,000 occur annually in a country whose population is only 23 million. Like in China, India and Pakistan, sex-selective abortions are common because male children are traditionally valued more highly than females. The Taiwanese government now want to make the practice impossible by preventing doctors from gender screening of foetuses.

A number of reports have emerged about this policy since 30 December 2011 and some in English can be found online. But most seem to wrongly announce that this is a new law, while, in fact, it is a reinterpretation of an older one.

Since 2000 a government directive has stated that doctors should not carry out gender screenings of foetuses, unless the screenings were related to the x-linked recessive disease, a genetic disorder related to the X chromosome. The fines for doctors ignoring this have been outlined since 2001. However, it seems that the directive was pretty much ignored until last year.

On 13 January 2011 the directive was re-emphasised by the government and sex-selective abortions were banned. However, it is only recently that doctors seem to have responded to this.

My wife is Taiwanese and her pregnant friends and family members (of which there have been many!) were able to find out the gender of their babies months before birth, as women in the UK are able to. However, now doctors all across Taiwan are refusing requests for gender scans.

This will mean that Taiwanese women giving birth in the year of the dragon will need to travel abroad for a scan or, for some, risk the possibility of having an unwanted girl. The policy has enraged many of those pregnant women who would not mind either a male or a female baby because it is preventing them from making advanced plans based in the sex of their coming child, such as what colour to paint bedrooms or what style of baby clothes to buy.

This time next year, it will be interesting to see how successful the government’s policy has been, as its impact could trigger similar policies in larger countries like India and China were imbalances in the gender ratio at birth result in much larger numbers of ‘extra’ men in the world.