China (search) is planning to make selective abortions of female fetuses illegal as a way to close the widening gap between the number of boys and girls in the country, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

"The government takes it as an urgent task to correct the gender imbalance of newborns," Zhang Weiqing, minister of National Population and Family Planning Commission, was quoted as saying Thursday by Xinhua.

Traditionally, sons have been more valued as a way for the family name to continue and as a means for parents to be cared for as they get older.

Government figures show 119 boys are born in China for every 100 girls — a gap blamed largely on parents aborting baby girls to try again for a boy under the country's one-child policy.

Zhang said the commission would begin drafting revisions to the criminal law "to effectively ban fetus gender detection and selective abortion other than for legitimate medical purposes."

The central government hopes to even out the imbalance by 2010, Xinhua said.

Currently, there are family planning laws that ban selective abortion, but Xinhua said criminalizing the act would make it more of a deterrent. The report did not specify how offenders would be punished.

Authorities have investigated 3,605 selective abortion cases in the past two years, Xinhua said, citing government figures.

The United States has criticized Beijing's strict controls over birth, saying the regulations that limit most urban couples to one child encourage forced abortions.

Under the Chinese policy, parents who have unsanctioned children can be fined, lose their jobs or undergo forced sterilization.

But China has rejected the complaints and said the regulations are necessary for the country's economic health.

On Thursday, China welcomed its 1.3 billionth citizen — a baby boy — in blaze of publicity that also focused on the 30-year-old one-child policy.

Without the policy, the government said China would have at least 200 million more mouths to feed, straining farm, water and other resources.

Xinhua said China has also in recent years helped fight discrimination against girls by launching a national program to exempt them from paying school fees.

"Families with just one daughter enjoy housing, employment, education and welfare privileges," Xinhua said.

Under strong U.S. pressure, Beijing in 2002 enacted a national law aimed at standardizing birth-control policies and reducing corruption and coercion.

The American government has also withheld money from the U.N. Population Fund for the past three years because the agency supports the Beijing government's family planning program.