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  • Morality in Flux: Medical Ethics Dilemmas in the People's Republic of China
  • Ren-Zong Qiu (bio)


Modern China is undergoing a fundamental change from a monolithic society to a rather pluralistic one. It is a long and winding road. Marxism is facing various challenges as the influence of Western culture increases. Confucianism is still deeply entrenched in the Chinese mind but various religions, including Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are experiencing a revival. Almost fifty minorities coexist in the country in addition to the majority Han people. Tension and conflict are inevitable as diverse—and sometimes incompatible—values come to the fore at this historic juncture. Many fields, including medicine, face new challenges, and in this environment the field of bioethics is flourishing.

Like many countries, China is groping with the effects of new medical technology and skyrocketing health care costs. But in the context of the Chinese sociocultural environment, some unique—as well as more familiar—issues arise. None of the classic texts provide ready-made answers to these dilemmas; we must find the answers ourselves. The only reasonable way to resolve the conflicts between opposing values is through dialogue, consultation, and negotiation among the various social and cultural groups.

The bioethical dilemmas receiving the most attention in China now relate to the two ends of life: birth and death. On one end are issues relating to reproductive technology, especially birth control and family planning; at the other end is euthanasia.

Dilemmas Surrounding Reproductive Technology

According to traditional Chinese belief, not having a child results from not having virtue. In fact, the most serious violation of the Confucian [End Page 16]principle of filial piety is to be without offspring. A Chinese man without a child experiences heavy psychological pressure, and the burden is especially onerous for women because infertility is always blamed on the wife. Wives who do not bear a child are stigmatized and mistreated—even abused—in families that stick to traditional values.

In China today, this widely held belief is colliding with another reality: an apparent increase in infertility among newly-married couples. The rate may be about 5 percent. These couples turn to doctors for help.

Artificial insemination by donor (AID) and by husband is now widely practiced. Eleven provinces have established sperm banks, and private doctors are performing AID for considerable fees. But procedures to address legal and ethical problems associated with the procedure have lagged behind. With the exception of a few centers in large cities, AID is undertaken without established procedures or policies relating to the selection of donors and recipients, records about those involved, or clarification of the status of the child. The legal status of the child remains unresolved.

The status of the child within the community is also unresolved as traditional values clash with the application of modern technology to childbearing. The case of "The Child Who Did Not Belong" (see box), illustrates how an AID child is not accepted by the family that embraces traditional values because he is not the husband's biological child.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is another alternative. Two IVF centers are in operation, one in Beijing and the other in Changsha, and both have succeeded in producing live births. This technology has received considerable media attention and is generally accepted even among those with traditional views.

But much of this medical technology is not widely accessible—especially in rural areas—and so some infertile couples resort to surrogate motherhood to ensure an heir. An infertile couple enters into a contract with a woman who has intercourse with the husband in order to bear a child for the couple. This practice is called "borrowing a wife." In some villages, the "borrowed wife" receives as much as 10,000 yuan (five times a professor's monthly salary or about $250) for a girl and double that for a boy.

But the more common and thorny problems involved with the beginning of life relate to birth control, family planning, and the "one couple, one child" policy that the Chinese government instituted to curb overpopulation. The goal of that policy is to prevent China's population from exceeding 1.2 billion in the year 2000...


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pp. 16-27
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