China Closes 201 Medical Clinics to Counter Gender Gap

A northern Chinese province has closed 201 clinics that helped detect and abort female fetuses, and is offering stipends to elderly couples without sons in an attempt to counter the widening gender imbalance, the government said Wednesday.

Investigators in Hebei province, next to Beijing, uncovered 848 cases over the past two years where medical staff had violated rules banning gender checks leading to abortions, the official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday.

CountryWatch: China

Of 745 hospitals and clinics involved, 374 facilities were fined, and 104 medical workers had their licenses revoked for arranging the illegal practices, Xinhua said. Criminal cases were opened against three others, it said, without saying what the charges were.

Abortion is commonly used for birth control in China, although they are supposed to be banned after the fetus is 14 weeks old. Critics of China's population policies say that rule is sometimes violated by family planning officials coercing women into abortions to keep from violating government birth targets.

The crackdown underscores concerns over the growing gender gap due to a traditional preference for male offspring and policies limiting most couples to one child — practices made easier by the spread of inexpensive ultrasound pre-birth gender checks.

Official figures show 117 boys are born in China for every 100 girls. The ratio in some parts of Hebei is as high as 134 to 100, Xinhua said.

Such imbalances have prompted fears of a large surplus of men, who may be unable to find mates in coming decades.

A spokesman for Hebei's health bureau declined to answer further questions about the crackdown, saying the Xinhua report contained all the available information.

China bans the use an ultrasound or other means to determine if a fetus is a boy or a girl, but doctors who do so usually face only administrative penalties, not criminal charges. Many such checks are carried out by freelancers moving from village to village with only an ultrasound machine.

Chinese tradition requires sons to support parents in their old age; daughters are expected to aid only their in-laws. Many families also opt to pay only for their sons' education if they cannot afford to school all their children.

Along with the crackdown, Hebei is paying couples without sons monthly stipends of about $75 — roughly the equivalent to an average monthly farming income. It also is subsidizing school fees to help more than 8,000 female dropouts return to classrooms.