New Internationalist

When sperm didn’t meet ovum

Issue 429

Many countries are debating whether they should have population policies. Here are two – very different – examples of nations that rapidly reduced their birth rates.


Launched the world’s most radical population policy which is credited with bringing down the fertility rate from 5-6 children per woman in 1970 to an estimated 1.5 today.

How did they do it?

China’s national family planning programme began in earnest in 1971 with the wan xi shao policy which advocated later marriage, longer birth intervals and fewer children. In 1979 the Government introduced the ‘one-child family’ policy. Enforcement was relaxed somewhat in the mid-1980s through the ‘one small hole’ shift, which enabled couples in rural areas whose first child was a girl to have a second child. But it was tightened in 1988 and again in the 1990s.

Today, despite having achieved below replacement fertility for over a decade, two-thirds of Chinese parents are only allowed one child. Parents who don’t comply are punished. So are local cadres, whose performance is linked to achievement of target fertility in their local area. Failure may cost wages or even dismissal. This, together with the complications of monitoring internal migration, is probably leading to some under-reporting of births. But the current 1.5 fertility rate estimate takes account of this.

The one-child policy has been blamed for skewing sex ratios. In 1963 the ratio was 104 boys to 100 girls born; by 2007 it was 120 to 100. Yuhua Yang of the Renmin University of China, says: ‘We need to ban sex selective abortion.’  But she is not convinced that the one-child policy is the cause of the imbalance. Rather, it exacerbates a cultural preference for sons which needs to be addressed.

Would China have achieved its birth rate decline if it had adopted a policy that was more like Iran’s and not so coercive?

Many experts – including Chinese demographers – think it would have. As people became richer and girls became better educated, people would have voluntarily elected to have fewer children, as they have done in countries such as Japan and Korea.

Is China likely to give up its one-child policy?

Many Chinese demographers are advocating that it should do so. The rule has been relaxed in Shanghai recently.



Achieved the fastest fertility decline in the world, from 6.6 children per woman in 1970 to 1.9 today.

How did they do it?

The country’s religious leaders who came to power in the 1979 Revolution abolished the beginnings of a family planning system – soldiers were needed for the war with Iraq. But in 1989, after the end of the war, a major policy change occurred. Iranian population experts managed to convince the religious leadership that high fertility rates were no longer in the country’s interests.

The Government mobilized a comprehensive ‘quality of life’ campaign, with family planning classes for all and free contraception. Women as well as men were given condoms.

The campaign coincided with a dramatic increase in the educational level of younger women, especially in the rural areas. In 1976 only 10 per cent of rural women  aged 20 to 24 were literate. This increased to 37 per cent in 1986, then 78 per cent in 1996, and by 2006 it was 91 per cent.

Farzaneh Roudi, of the Population Reference Bureau, comments: ‘People outside Iran imagine that the family planning programme must have been coercive but it wasn’t. There was widespread public education about family planning; everyone was talking about it. Women had more control over their own fertility than in the time of the Shah. And it didn’t lead to many more boys being born than girls, as in some other countries.’

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This article was originally published in issue 429

New Internationalist Magazine issue 429
Issue 429

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