BEIJING — Chinese health officials Wednesday denied reports that a proposed national birth control law would force pregnant women to have abortions against their will, even if the fetus were deformed or carried blood-borne diseases.
The Public Health Ministry, in a statement released via the official New China News Agency, confirmed that the proposed law would require people with diseases that lead to birth defects or mental retardation to postpone marriage or undergo "long-term contraceptive measures after marriage."
At least one province already mandates sterilization for people with histories of mental illness or severe mental retardation.
The law would also require physicians to advise abortion when the life or health of the mother or infant is imperiled.
However, a spokesman for the Health Ministry insisted that the law stipulates that the mother or her guardian must agree before an abortion can be performed.
"The law respects the right of individuals to make their own judgments and reflects the principle of combining government guidance with individual choice," the spokesman said.
The clarification came a week after an earlier New China News Agency report, picked up by the international press, implied that the new law would be used to eugenically control births.
Although it stirred the ire of international anti-abortion groups, the report attracted little attention in China, the world's most populous country.
China is reeling under the pressure of its 1.18 billion people, including an estimated 60 million who are mentally retarded or physically disabled. Practices such as sterilization and infanticide of deformed children are much more accepted in China than in the West.
Since the Chinese government already restricts births to one child per couple, a policy aimed at ensuring that the newborn is physically and mentally healthy has widespread popular support.
Chen Mingxia, a lawyer who in 1990 drafted a pilot law aimed at restricting the number of births of retarded and congenitally disabled children, summed up the attitude in an interview with Time magazine.
"If the Chinese people can have only one child," she said, "then they must have the best and healthiest child."
However, in drafting the clarification Chinese officials hoped to avoid a confrontation with anti-abortion activists in the United States that could affect already sensitive trade negotiations between the two countries.
According to a Western population expert based in Beijing, the new law will need to include language guaranteeing "voluntary choice and non-coercion."
In the initial New China News Agency report Dec. 20, the title of the new law was translated as a "Draft Law on Eugenics and Health Protection."
In the version released Wednesday, it was called a "Draft Natal and Health Care Law" to avoid comparison with the policies employed in Nazi Germany.
"China's better-births policy," the Health Ministry spokesman told the News China News Agency, "is totally different from the racist 'eugenics' policy pursued by Adolf Hitler during the Third Reich."
Much of the draft law, in fact, would guarantee for Chinese women the same kind of prenatal examination afforded most women in the West. In the United States and Canada, ultrasound and amniocentesis tests are routinely conducted, particularly on women older than 35, to determine whether a fetus is healthy.