SHANGHAI -- An Internet company in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou has sparked controversy after announcing a new social media app to provide interest-free loans to help pregnant university students pay for abortions. Some have said the move is a breakthrough, in a nation where sex before marriage, once taboo, is increasingly common -- but where prejudice against it remains high. But critics say it may only increase the rate of abortions and encourage unsafe sex.

The company’s founder, Yan Zhengsheng, told local media that he had hit on the idea after getting his girlfriend pregnant in his final year at university, and discovering that an abortion and related medical care cost more than $1,600. He said that he had not dared to tell his parents, and had had to borrow money from friends to fund the procedure.

Guangzhou's Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper commented that such an amount, equivalent to two or three months’ wages for many urban Chinese citizens, would be hard for white collar workers to pay, let alone university students. It said Chinese students typically had no income, and would have to borrow heavily, or alternatively go to an unlicensed abortion clinic or use a chemical abortion pill, which it said could be “very harmful.”

China_AIDSActivism University students form a large red ribbon during an HIV/AIDS awareness rally ahead of World AIDS day in Shenyang, Liaoning province on Nov. 29, 2008. Photo: Reuters

Yan said the new loan platform, called "Anliubao," or “Peaceful abortion treasure,” would allow students to pay for the procedure in installments over a number of months. He said his company was working together with a local hospital, and would also provide doctors to counsel students who were planning to have an abortion.

“We do not encourage sex before marriage, but we hope that if something unplanned happens, young people will be able to afford better quality treatment,” he told the Southern Metropolis Daily.

Yan added that a survey by his company of a thousand students showed that more than 60 percent had had sex while at university, and in more than a third of cases the intercourse was unprotected.

However the Southern Metropolis Daily asked whether the new service would really help reduce the damage caused by having an abortion, or would encourage more "wanton" behavior, and push students further into “an abyss of sin.”

And some online and media commenters said that by making it easier for students to have abortions, without the embarrassment of having to borrow money from their families, the loan service might make them “less responsible” and create a vicious circle, where the rate of unplanned pregnancies and multiple abortions increased. 

One media pundit said that many students were not aware that having an abortion could have long-term consequences, such as infertility. She also criticized hospitals for advertizing “painless abortions,” and said that the most important thing was that students should adopt a “correct attitude to sex.” One Internet user suggested it was “shocking” that an issue related to morality should be used to “promote an online funding platform.”

However founder Yan emphasized that his company was also planning to provide free safe-sex classes for students, and said that people in China needed to face up to the fact that “sex before marriage does occur, and is more and more common.”

HK_CondomAd Models pose with a replica of a condom during the 2001 Durex Global Sex Survey Press conference in Hong Kong on Nov. 27, 2001. Photo: Reuters

Official surveys have shown that more than 60 percent of young Chinese now accept the idea of sex before marriage -- and that more than half of teenagers who have sex do not take precautions the first time, and some 21 percent of them get pregnant. According to official statistics, at least 13 million abortions are carried out in China every year, more than half of them involving women under 25.

Many Chinese sociologists have said the country needs a rapid improvement in its sex education, in order to keep pace with fast-changing social attitudes. However this remains a controversial issue, with some sex educators, accused of leading children astray, have faced physical attacks.