Two women and two babies sit on a bench in a park in Beijing on May 25. Photo: AFP / Nicolas Asfouri

Beijing has called for a reduction in abortions that are not “medically necessary,” as China tries to reverse its falling birth rate and encourage couples to have more children.

After decades of a strict one-child policy – one of the world’s strictest family planning regulations – China has been gradually easing restrictions to encourage couples to have more children, after a record-low number of babies were born last year.

New guidelines published Monday by the country’s cabinet called for better standards of women’s health, awareness of contraception and improved sexual health.

Healthcare professionals should “promote pre-marital medical examinations, pre-pregnancy health check-ups” and “reduce abortions that are not medically necessary,” it said.

It did not give details on how this would work in practice.

Unlike in much of Asia, abortion is legal and easily accessible in China. But there are strict controls preventing sex-selective abortions because decades of the one-child policy – and a traditional social preference for boys – led to a skewed gender balance and abandoned baby girls.

In 2016, China relaxed the one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children, as concerns mounted over an aging workforce and economic stagnation.

This year, the rules were eased again to allow three children.

Changing mindsets plus soaring costs of property and education mean many young couples are reluctant to have more than one child, particularly given the pressures of caring for elderly parents.

The latest census in June showed that China’s population had grown at its slowest pace in decades, reaching 1.41 billion, with a sharp drop in the number of working-age people.

Annual births plummeted to a record low of 12 million in 2020 and, in the rapidly aging society, policymakers have been turning to a number of measures in a desperate bid to boost the population.

Other efforts to encourage bigger families include a series of measures to ban expensive extra-curricular tutoring that Beijing feared was seen as a barrier to having more children.