Hong Kong (CNN) -- China's plan to relax its controversial decades-long, one-child policy has taken a significant step forward, with the country's top legislative body poised to approve its implementation early next year.
The changes to the rules, first announced last month, will mean couples will be allowed to have two children if one of the parents was an only child, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Currently, both parents must be sole children to be eligible for a second child.
According to Xinhua, The State Council, China's cabinet, submitted the bill on "adjusting and improving the family planning policy" to the bi-monthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) -- the country's most powerful decision-making body.
The revised family planning policy is expected to go into force in some provincial regions in the first quarter of 2014, according to Yang Wenzhuang of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, adding that health and family planning authorities at various levels are "conducting risk assessment for the policy."
The one-child policy, though applauded by many for slowing down China's rapid population growth, has been widely criticized for resulting in forced abortions and hefty fines that are sometimes used to enforce it.
Some critics say the law hurts China's elderly, who typically rely on their children for support in old age, and even constrains economic growth as the working age population begins to decline.
'Birth rate stable'
"It is the right time to make changes. The low birth rate is stable, the working population still large and the burden of supporting the elderly remains relatively light," Li Bin, minister in charge of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, was quoted by Xinhua as saying on Monday.
The State Council says authorities at regional level should amend family planning regulations after evaluating local demographics.
An increase in births is expected if the policy changes but will not seriously affect the food supply, public education, healthcare or employment, Li added.
According to Xinhua, China's food safety and public service schemes are designed to meet the needs of 1.43 billion people by 2020 and 1.5 billion in 2033. Even with the policy change, the total population will not exceed 1.38 billion in 2015, Li predicted.
CNN's Feng Ke contributed to this report.