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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

And I'm Robert Smith. In China, parents who lost their children in the earthquake face a heartwrenching decision: whether they will apply to the government to have another baby. It highlights the challenges of China's unique one-child policy. For much of the country, that law means heavy fines for a second, illegal child.

To find out more about the policy and what the Chinese government is telling families now, we reached Tyrene White, professor of political science at Swarthmore College. Good morning.

Professor TYRENE WHITE (Political Science, Swarthmore College; Author): Good morning.

SMITH: Earlier this week, Chinese officials said that if families lost a child, they could have another child, if their child was killed or injured or disabled in the quake. Is that an actual change in policy?

Prof. WHITE: No, actually, it's not. From the early years of the one-child policy, beginning in - around 1979, 1980, there has always been a provision in place to allow parents whose child died or became severely disabled to be given permission to have another child.

SMITH: If we were to visit China, we would probably find that there are a lot of families out there that have more than one child. Is that the case?

Prof. WHITE: Yes. Certainly there are many families, particularly in rural areas, that do have two children and some that have more than two. In the countryside, there has been for some time a variety of exceptions. The most fundamental one has been that those whose first child was a female were to be permitted to try again and presumably try for a son.

SMITH: What are the penalties that families face if they don't follow the one-child policy?

Prof. WHITE: The penalties now vary from province to province. But in general, they face a serious economic penalty. They also may find that they are unable to register that child for school. They may also find that they have greater difficulty with a whole range of other things, whether it be access to health care or employment later on. To have an unregistered child can cause a whole range of bureaucratic complications.

SMITH: If it's been the case all along that if a child dies, the parents can apply to have another child, why would the government come out with this policy after the earthquake? What are they trying to say here?

Prof. WHITE: Well, some of the school buildings were the ones to suffer the greatest damage and where there was tremendous loss of life, and what that means is that you have an enormous population of grieving parents. And certainly, I think that one of the things that they want to do is to make sure that those parents understand that they will be accommodated should they decide that they would like to have another child.

It will be complicated by the fact that many of those parents, if they had children who were already in middle school, they may already be at or approaching or past 40 years of age. So whether or not it will be possible at this point to conceive again, that's a very different question.

SMITH: Do we see any indication that the Chinese government is moving away from the one-child policy, that they may use the earthquake as a way to create even more loosening of the rules and regulations?

Prof. WHITE: No, I don't think this announcement has anything to do with that at all. I think the Chinese authorities have been very clear that they want to keep this basic policy in place. Although at the same time, in response to the projections that they are seeing regarding their own economic needs and their workforce, those projections are requiring them to think in a much more complex way about what the most appropriate policy would be.

So certainly, it may be the case that at some point, there is a modest relaxation of the limits. But if that does occur, I do not believe that it will in any way be a direct reaction to what has happened in the earthquake.

SMITH: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. WHITE: You're very welcome. My pleasure.

SMITH: Tyrene White is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and the author of "China's Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People's Republic."

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