NEW YORK — Vietnam will continue to enforce its stringent two-child policy for at least another year because there is no consensus to overhaul it, according to officials from the U.S. tax-funded United Nations Development Fund (UNFPA) that has financed and helped to run the program.

Vietnam media reported June 9 that the country’s General Office for Population and Family Planning (GOPFP) under the Ministry of Health was considering new population legislation that would allow Vietnamese couples to decide how many children they want, amid increasing economic woes tied to plummeting fertility.

The reports quoted Nguyen Van Tan, deputy chief of the office, who said that the two-child policy needs to be loosened gradually so the country’s birth rate can return to the desired replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

But UNFPA officials subsequently told the Register that the reports were premature and that Vietnam’s National Assembly (NA), in conjunction with the government and Communist Party of Vietnam, had postponed any population-law review.

“On June 9, 2015, the NA made a decision to postpone the review of the draft population law to the next year because there has been a lot of debate on this issue without a clear consensus,” said an emailed statement from unnamed officials of the international “reproductive health” agency, in reply to questions submitted by the Register.

With a total fertility rate of 6.8 children per woman in the 1960s, Vietnamese women became targets for population-control advocates at the height of the era’s overpopulation panic, which was recently mocked by The New York Times. Tax-funded “family planning” organizations, prominently including the UNFPA, tied their development funds to the government’s population-reduction targets in the country; and by the 1980s, the fertility rate plunged to 3.8 children per woman.


Coercive Policy Implemented

Vietnam began enforcing its two-child law in 1993; and in 2000, the BBC called the population-control measure “one of the most effective in the world.” Indeed, it had reduced the fertility rate to 2.3, albeit using coercive measures, including expulsion from the Communist Party (which could mean loss of employment), land confiscation (which could mean starvation) and other financial penalties for couples with more than two children.

That reduction was not far enough, however, and the quest to lower Vietnam’s birth rate continued to the estimated current rate that is as low as 1.68 in Ho Chi Minh City in recent years.

The Virginia-based Population Research Institute also documented egregious violations of reproductive rights by Vietnamese birth-control workers working with UNFPA staff in abuses including coercive sterilizations and abortions, paying women $20 each to undergo hysterectomies and denying illegal children birth certificates and funding for health care and education — charges which UNFPA called “biased and not evidence-based” in its statement to the Register.

“Over the past decades, UNFPA has been assisting the government of Viet Nam to implement voluntary family-planning services as a way to support the government to follow through its commitment to the ICPD [International Conference on Population and Development] principles,” said the statement. “Therefore, UNFPA Viet Nam has never supported the two-child policy.”

“Couples and individuals should have a right to decide the number and spacing of their children freely and responsibly,” the statement added. “Based on this principle, UNFPA considers the ongoing debate on if the country should maintain its two-child policy or not as a positive signal that Viet Nam wishes to explore a new direction to present a positive change to people’s lives.”


Funding for Abortion and Contraception

It was the old and current direction of legislated restrictions to family-planning programs that UNFPA funded, however.

“The Vietnamese budget for the family-planning program has long been dependent on foreign aid; government estimates are that about 80% of funding for purchasing contraceptives came from donors between 1996 and 2006,” states a 2011 report from the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), an international organization that funds abortion and contraceptive services in developing countries. UNFPA is described as a “commodity donor to the family-planning program for many years and now provides technical assistance to GOPFP on reproductive health, including contraceptive access and condom programming.”

The document, entitled “Developing a Total Market Plan for Family Planning in Vietnam,” states that UNFPA and other major donors, including the KfW German banks, have withdrawn funding for family planning in Vietnam in recent years. PATH has not, however. A  2010 PATH document states that “the Ministry of Health is adopting policies and programs to give women access to safer abortions and other reproductive-health services, [and] PATH helps by building the capacity of health providers at the district and provincial levels to ensure access to good-quality medical abortion services …”

The Seattle-based group was founded in the 1970s, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, but in 2014, nearly one-quarter of PATH’s $305 million budget was from the U.S. government. More than half of its funding comes from private foundations like the Gates Foundation.

Though Melinda Gates has claimed her organization’s family-planning efforts are “not about abortion” and “not about population control,” the Gates Foundation has provided millions of dollars to organizations like PATH who work in countries like China and Vietnam endorsing stringent anti-child population-reduction programs that violate women’s freedom.


Sex-Selective Abortions

Last year, British media reported that 40% of all pregnancies end in abortion in Vietnam, meaning it has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. As well, the practice of sex-selective abortion, in a culture that highly prizes male children, has resulted in skewed male-to-female birth ratios, as high as 150 to 100 in some provinces and 120 to 100 nationally. Last month, Vietnamese television aired an interview with a woman who selectively aborted 18 girl babies trying to give birth to a son.

“Sex-selective abortion is the ultimate violence against women. The practice of gendercide says that girls do not have the right to be born, to draw breath upon this earth, simply because they are female,” Reggie Littlejohn, President of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers told the Register.

Imbalanced sex ratios lead to myriad problems, including forced marriage, sex trafficking and other abuses of girls and women, but the radical population reduction has also seen a rapidly graying population, which, Vietnamese media have reported, is straining the health-care system and, with a projected one-third of the population over 60 years old in 2030, is “seriously overloading its fragile social welfare and pension system.”

“Vietnam’s population has been aging too fast. The proportion of the elderly in less than 20 years will become equal to Japan's, while per-capita income in Vietnam is much lower,” Vietnamese UNFPA official Nguyen Ngoc Quynh told the Thanhnien News.


UNFPA Downplays Problems

But the unidentified UNFPA officials who wrote the Register downplayed the fallout of their agency’s birth-regulating decades in Vietnam.

“[W]hile it is true that the government of Vietnam needs to prepare for the challenges posed by population aging, the country is not yet at the stage where it must talk about ‘demographically defined economic turmoil,’” they said. The country is still in a “demographic dividend” period, they added, in which working age population far exceeds dependents, and which could last until 2040.

Nevertheless, they added, with fertility below replacement level for almost 10 years, “we believe that now it is time for Viet Nam to shift the focus of its population policy from narrowly defined birth control to more broadly and strategically integrating population dynamics into long-term development planning.”

Said the UNFPA officials, “In addition, appropriate actions needs to be taken to set up well-functioning social-protection policies and systems to prepare for the aged-population phase.”

Register correspondent Celeste McGovern writes from Scotland.