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China Makes One-Child Policy Exception for Earthquake Affected Families

Chinese officials said Monday that the country's one-child policy exempts families with a child killed, severely injured or disabled in the country's devastating earthquake.

Those families can obtain a certificate to have another child, the Chengdu Population and Family Planning Committee in the capital of hard-hit Sichuan province said.

The earthquake, and its destruction of almost 7,000 classrooms during a school day, left China heartbroken, with newspaper photos focusing on piles of dusty bookbags and small hands emerging from the debris.

With so many shattered families asking questions, the Chengdu committee is clarifying existing one-child policy guidelines, said a committee official surnamed Wang.

"There are just a lot of cases now, so we need to clarify our policies," said Wang, who declined to elaborate.

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The May 12 quake was particularly painful to many Chinese because it killed so many only children.

The earthquake has left more than 65,000 people so far, with more than 23,000 missing. Officials have not been able to estimate the number of children killed.

Chinese couples who have more than one child are commonly punished by fines.

The announcement says that if a child born illegally was killed in the quake, the parents will no longer have to pay fines for that child — but the previously paid fines won't be refunded.

If the couple's legally born child is killed and the couple is left with an illegally born child under the age of 18, that child can be registered as the legal child — an important move that gives the child previously denied rights including free nine years of compulsory education.

China's one-child policy was launched in the late 1970s to control China's exploding population and ensure better education and health care.

The law includes certain exceptions for ethnic groups, rural families and families where both parents are only children.

The government says the policy has prevented an additional 400 million births, but critics say it has also led to forced abortions, sterilizations and a dangerously imbalanced sex ratio as local authorities pursue sometimes severe birth quotas set by Beijing and families abort girls out of a traditional preference for male heirs.

Though commonly called a one-child policy, the rules offer a welter of exceptions and loopholes, some of them put into practice because of widespread opposition to the limits.

For example, in large parts of rural China, most families are allowed a second child, especially if the first was a girl. Local officials often have wide discretion on enforcement, a fact that has made the policy susceptible to corruption.

Many Chinese have shown interest in adopting earthquake orphans, and Monday's announcement says there are no limits on the number of earthquake orphans a family can adopt.

The adoptions, or even a future birth to a family that adopts an orphan, will not face the limitations of the one-child policy.

Officials estimated last week that the quake left about 4,000 orphans, but they warned they would make every effort to connect children with other family members.