BEIJING -- A Chinese city's plan to fine mothers who have a child out of wedlock has sparked criticism that the policy is discriminatory and could lead to an increase in abandoned babies.

One expert said Monday that it was the first time that out-of-wedlock children had been expressly singled out for penalty by one of China's municipalities, which have flexibility in how they enforce China's population-control policies. It also came just days after the rescue of a young unmarried mother's newborn from a sewer pipe in eastern China prompted discussion over the stigma that single mothers face.

"If the policy is approved, there could be more `sewer babies,' because when mothers can't afford the cost, they might think about throwing their babies away," said Chen Yaya, a gender equality researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

On Friday, the government of Wuhan city in central Hubei published online a draft updated family planning policy which it says is aimed at keeping the city's birth rate at a low level.

The policy says that "the parties" should pay the fee in cases of births that are out of wedlock or when one side knowingly has a child with someone who has a spouse. It has been interpreted in state media as mainly targeting unmarried mothers and women who have affairs with married men. The public has a week to comment on it.

"It looks like the policy is targeted just at women from my understanding," Chen said.

She said unmarried mothers already faced discrimination, including being barred from receiving maternity benefits from the government.

Unmarried mothers also face stigma because premarital sex traditionally has been frowned upon. In the case of the baby found in the sewer in Zhejiang province on May 25, his mother told police she got pregnant after a brief affair, couldn't afford an abortion, hid her pregnancy from family and neighbors and had concerns about whether she would be able to raise the child. Police also said she told them the baby slipped into the sewer accidentally shortly after its birth – an account they later said they accepted.

Wuhan's proposed rule would be the first time that bearing a child when unmarried has been spelled out as a separate offense, said Yuan Xin, a professor of population studies at Renmin University.

"In fact, a lot of family planning regulations have included unmarried childbearing under illegal childbearing. They were just not specified as a separate term as is the case this time with Wuhan," he said.

"We need to distinguish between the legal and moral aspects" and define what a family is nowadays, said Yuan. "Let's say I am single, and I want to have a child. Is that wrong? No, it's not, so is it considered a family? Having a baby with a married man, is that considered a family? All these details need to be specified."

Babies resulting from an unmarried relationship or an affair with someone who is already married will provoke a "social compensation fee," an official at the family planning committee of Wuhan city in central Hubei province said Monday. He refused to give his name, as is common with Chinese officials.

Social compensation fees are levied on people who break China's strict family planning policy, which restricts many urban couples to one child. The fee depends on the province and the whim of the local family planning bureau, and the children are denied education and health benefits.

Hubei province, in which Wuhan is located, sets its social compensation fee as three times the average annual disposable income.

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AP researchers Flora Ji in Beijing and Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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