A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that women who are forced to abort their pregnancies by governments such as China's can be awarded asylum in the United States.

Courts previously have allowed victims of forced sterilization to seek asylum here. On Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the same protection should be given to victims of forced abortions and their spouses.

"Both forms of persecution have serious, ongoing effects," the three-judge panel wrote in its unanimous decision. "We see no way to distinguish between the victims of forced sterilization and the victims of forced abortion for withholding of removal eligibility purposes."

The San Francisco-based court made that determination when it ruled that Zi Zhi Tang can remain in the United States because the court found that Chinese officials forced his wife to undergo an abortion in 1980 because the couple wasn't married.

In 1991, Tang's employer, a Chinese construction company, sent him to Guam to work on a project. U.S. immigration officials notified him in 2002 that his worker's visa had expired and he had to leave the country.

Instead, Tang appealed that he and his wife suffered persecution in China because of the abortion she said was forced on her. An immigration judge ordered the couple deported after finding that her abortion wasn't forced because she didn't try to go into hiding after receiving notice from Chinese officials to undergo the procedure.

The appeals court overturned that decision and found that an official order to undergo an abortion constitutes force.

Tang's attorney in Guam and a lawyer for the Department of Justice, which argued for Tang's deportation, didn't immediately return telephone calls for comment.

China's family planning policy — implemented in the late 1970s — limits most urban couples to one child and families in some rural areas to two to control population growth and conserve natural resources.

Human rights activists complain the policy has led to forced abortions, sterilizations and a dangerously imbalanced sex ratio due to a traditional preference for male heirs, which has prompted countless families to abort female fetuses in hopes of getting boys.