Ethical Perspectives on China’s One-Child Policy

  • Helena Rene American University


In 1979, The People’s Republic of China (PRC) introduced its controversial one-child-per-family policy in an attempt to control its rapid population growth. The policy remains an extraordinary national effort to control and engineer societal development and human reproductive behavior. Subsequently, this archetypal nonviolent policy has attracted worldwide attention and is often criticized for unethically abridging human rights. For example, it has been called everything from “eugenics,” “systems engineering,” “inhumane,” to “illegal.”  However, analysis of the policy from a variety of competing ethical perspectives demonstrates that the policy and its implementation cannot be said to be unethical.  Specifically, this article considers the policy and its implementation from the ethical perspectives of Lockean contractarianism, communitarianism, utilitarianism, international law, and international realism. The analysis demonstrates the utility of considering public policies from a variety of ethical considerations.Public social policies are generally assessed and evaluated in terms of economic cost-effectiveness; however, efficiency and economy are neither indisputable nor sole criteria for the formulation of public policies. Emphasizing financial, opportunity and other economic costs is only one dimension of policy analysis; ethical implications, social and human costs must also be considered. Public policies in practice inevitably incorporate alternative choices for distributing and allocating social resources. Policy formulation and implementation necessarily involve politics and normative values. They also pose expansive questions regarding rights, duties, and ethics. In the words of Deborah Stone, a Dartmouth Professor of Government, “reasoned analysis is necessarily political. It always involves choices to include some things and exclude others and to view the world in a particular way when other visions are possible.”  This article employs different ethical perspectives to evaluate China's one-child policy and its implementation.

Author Biography

Helena Rene, American University
Helena Rene is a Ph.D. student, School of Public Affairs, American University (Washington, DC). M.A. in Teaching, University of California, Irvine. 2003. The author gratefully acknowledges American University Distinguished Professor David H. Rosenbloom for his assistance, guidance and support with this article.