[Dialogue] Prof Ruby Lai discusses her new book on premarital abortion in China
27 Jan 2023
Prof Ruby Lai Yuen-shan, Assistant Professor of the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, used to be a full-time reporter and editor. Feeling that it was difficult to conduct in-depth research and reports on issues she cared about, she chose an academic path, and after completing her undergraduate degree in journalism and communication, she switched to pursue a master's degree and then a PhD in sociology to explore her interests - gender, family, reproductive health, ethnic identity, Hong Kong and Chinese society. She recently published "Premarital Abortion in China: Intimacy, Family, and Reproduction", a doctoral dissertation completed in five years.
Q: Why did you choose abortion as the research topic?
One of my supervisor's research projects was about male migrant workers in China. Once when we were conducting fieldwork in a city in South China, I interviewed a male security guard who told me about his love life, and said that many of his girlfriends had had an abortion. This surprised me a bit, because it is a very serious issue in Hong Kong, but he was quite casual about it. So I wondered what those girls had felt. That is the reason I chose this topic.
Q: Can you talk about the findings of the study?
I interviewed 62 girls aged between the ages of 17 and 35, and about 10 doctors and nurses. There were many reasons why these girls had chosen to terminate their pregnancy, but they can be divided into three aspects: the self, couple relation and intergenerational relation. On the personal side, first and foremost are economic issues. Many of them are migrant workers from other provinces. Without secure housing, they would not wish to have children, because they would not want their children to have a floating life. Second is the issue of gender roles. In today's Chinese family culture, motherhood means heavy family responsibilities, and fewer opportunities for a career and personal development. It is difficult for these women to face unprepared motherhood, and so many choose to postpone marriage and childbearing to maintain their current lifestyle.
In China, marriage and having children are still closely linked and must be taken into account in the event of an unintended pregnancy. These girls are very clear that a partner in a love relationship may not be a responsible husband and father, so if they are not "reliable" in aspects such as finances, family background, and personal traits, they do not want a child by him. Finally, many scholars have pointed out that today the natal family is becoming increasingly important, and girls I interviewed felt the same. Their parents are their most reliable and important relatives, so they are aware that if their parents do not approve of their marriage and childbearing decisions, that will cause many difficulties in the future. Therefore, when they face major life choices, they will always take their parents’ wishes into account.
Q: What impact does the research have on policy?
China is facing severe problems of ageing, and a declining birth rate. Although the Chinese government has implemented many policies to stimulate births in the past decade, the results have not been as expected. In fact, most of these policies are aimed at the married population of childbearing age, but those who are willing to have children, such as the girls I interviewed, are not necessarily married. Although they chose to terminate their pregnancies at the time, most of them want to have children in due course, just not then. Therefore, in order to think about China's future population and family planning policies, in addition to focusing on married couples of childbearing age, we should also turn our attention to the unmarried population of a reproductive age.
Many commentators are concerned about whether the Chinese government will restrict access to abortion while dealing with the ageing population and stimulating the birth rate. In my book I argue that, regardless of policy shifts, the authorities must maintain existing legal, safe, and affordable abortion services to ensure women's reproductive health and rights. History has proved that restricting abortion services does not encourage women to bear children, and it forces them to use dangerous methods to terminate their pregnancies.
Q: Recently, you were awarded the Early Career Scheme by the Research Grants Council for your research on "Gendering Informal Housing: Intersectional Inequality and the Resilience of Families Living in Subdivided Units in Hong Kong". Can you give us your research background?
I worked as a census taker for the government census when I was a student. One day I visited a subdivided flat in a tenement building, and when I went in, I found that there was no partition in the room and none in the toilet. One part of the long questionnaire I was responsible for asked how many toilets and kitchens there were in the home. The respondent replied "You can see it with your eyes, so you don't need to ask, right?" I was embarrassed. Then I visited another subdivided flat where a girl of my age and her daughter lived. Although it was small, the mother and daughter were very happy. I have remembered this for all these years, and I would like to know how to keep a family under such difficult circumstances.
This project explores the daily life of subdivided-flat residents through a gender perspective. Everyone knows the difficulties they face, but the public is not necessarily aware of their efforts in holding the family together, especially women who are the housekeepers. These women are smart and responsible. For example, how to cook without a kitchen? They set up a "platform" to cook three times a day, and this is where their children read and play too. To make good use of the space, they have to do a lot of repetitive work for their families to survive. One focus of my research is to record these unobserved labour and analyse their intertwined inequalities.
Q: What impact do you expect your research to make?
I think it is necessary to tell society about their actual needs in life, but, at the same time, it is also necessary to affirm the value of their labour and contribution, because this is very important for their children, so that they grow up to be good members of society. This is often overlooked. I also hope that the research will help inform policy development, implementation and evaluation, as well as increase community services for women, caregivers and youth.
Q: In terms of teaching, one of your students recently won the Hong Kong Sociological Association Best Thesis Award, which you won in 2019. In this different role, how do you feel?
Serving as a supervisor is my new role, and allows me to develop my comprehension and communication skills. I have to understand the student's thinking, and we must respect each other. I must try to express things in a way that the student can accept and understand. As tutors, our responsibility is to give the students informed and helpful opinions, so that they can build and achieve their own projects step by step.