Al Jazeera recently reported that in the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen, a woman who was 8 months pregnant was forcibly given an abortion because her pregnancy was in violation of the country’s one-child policy.
Xiao Ai Ying’s husand told Al Jazeera‘s Melissa Chan that men pinned his wife’s arms behind her back and kicked her repeatedly in the stomach, presumably trying to induce a miscarriage. She was then forcibly injected with chemicals that killed her fetus. She spoke to Chan — who had sneaked into the hospital — while awaiting a procedure to remove the dead fetus.
Xiao and her husband were both visibly unhappy, and were terrified of government retribution for revealing their experience to a news organization.
Al Jazeera released this report, including video clips of interviews with both members of the couple (transcript at the bottom of the post).
While forced abortions are not officially part of the government’s family planning policy, reports of women being physically forced to submit to abortions make their way out of the country with regularity. In 2007, NPR reported on two specific forced abortions and described assertions from Chinese citizens that the procedure happened regularly. Around the same time, Time magazine reported that 61 women in the Guangxi province had been forced into abortions. The U.S. Department of State’s 2008 Human Rights Report on China contained reports of several coerced and physically forced abortions.
In addition, the trepidation with which Xiao Ai Ying and Luo Yan Qua reported their experience might suggest other couples have had similar experiences but were afraid to make themselves known. The fact this forced abortion happened in Xiamen, a modern city, is noted as an anomaly by Al Jazeera — till now, reports of forced abortions have been from rural areas. Hopefully, this means that this couple’s experience is unique, but I fear it means the practice is more widespread than we know.
Besides overtly, physically forced abortions, given the extreme financial penalties that can be levied for the birth of a second child — up to 40,000 U.S. dollars – — almost any abortion that happens because of the policy might be considered coerced. For the sense of the scale of these potential fines, consider that in 2004 WorldSalaries.org calculated the average gross annual income for an average Chinese worker as 4,397 U.S. dollars — less than an eighth of the maximum possible fine. For the crime of having a second child, a woman may also be sterilized. For a woman who finds herself pregnant after a birth control failure, or even after making the decision to conceive, the prospect of paying eight years worth of income and being sterilized by force makes abortion look like an attractive option.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but because pro-choice advocates are often painted by pro-life extremists as “pro-abortion,” I’ll say it — pro-choice means pro-choice, allowing a woman to make her own decisions about her own pregnancy. Of course, she may take many factors into account, from her religious beliefs to her financial security to the feelings of her partner, but such an exorbitant fine (and invasive medical procedure) is more coercion than “contributing factor.” Reproductive rights advocates are against forced pregnancy, but they are also very much against forced abortion and forced sterilization.
According to figures released by China’s government in 2009, 13 million abortions are performed in China annually, and an additional 10 million pills intended to induce abortions are sold every year. A report by the World Health Organisation and the Guttmacher Institute set the figure lower, at 9 million abortions per year. It is unclear how many of these abortions are performed to prevent the birth of a second child, or to abort a female fetus in the hope of later conceiving a valued boy.
Even after a second child is born, the danger may not be over. Last September at Equal Writes I wrote about a Los Angeles Times story in which Chinese families told reporters their babies had been stolen from them by “family planning” officials. They said that when they were unable to pay the fines for having a second child — or when they were simply perceived as vulnerable — government officials in charge of enforcing the one-child policy would take their infants away, then label them as “abandoned” for unscrupulous adoption agencies in exchange for a susbstantial cut of adoption fees from Western couples.
One-Child Policy’s Damage Goes Beyond Even Forced Abortions
China’s one-child has not been pure, unadulterated evil — for instance, it does seem to have been effective in curbing overpopulation in China — but its negative effects are serious and have the potential to be long-reaching. It not only leaves parents and infants vulnerable to family planning officials, it affects all Chinese society.
Some scholars postulate that the single-child policy may have set China up for an economic fall as the population ages. Perhaps even more serious, though, is the gender imbalance the family planning policies exacerbated (I say “exacerbated” rather than “created” because India, which has no such policy, is also experiencing a substantial gender imbalance). In China, sons are deeply prized as status symbols, heirs, workers, and as the only children who are believed to be able to properly care for their ancestors’ souls. In fact, male children are so important in many parts of China, especially rural areas, that some provinces allow couples with a daughter to have a second child in order to try for a son. In other areas, the desire for a son combined with a one-child policy can lead to sex-selective abortion or, worse, the abandonment or even infanticide of baby girls. Last year, the New York Times reported (and I discussed) that family planning policies and desperation for sons has also led to a rash of young boys being kidnapped in cities and sold to rural families.
Sex-selective abortion and the abandonment of female infants — and post-natal factors like preferential nutrition and medical care for sons — has led, over the past three decades of the family planning policy, to an extreme gender imbalance. In April of 2009, the British Medical Journal concluded that as of 2005, in China “males under the age of 20 exceeded females by more than 32 million.” Many scholars fear that this imbalance will lead to a glut of men who are unable to find partners, “bare branches” who may be more prone to crime, gang formation, religious extremism and social instability.
After reports in September that the Chinese government intended to relax the single-child policy in order to provide more workers in an aging country and to help correct the gender imbalance, the government reiterated its commitment to restricting procreation. The head of the National Population and Family Planning Commission told a state-run newspaper that contrary to speculation that the policy would be repealed nationwide by 2015, “[W]e will stick to the family planning policy in the coming decades.”
While acknowledging that overpopulation is a serious problem, the toxic mix of cultural preference for boys and state-restricted reproduction have created a situation where Chinese men vastly outnumber Chinese women, children are kidnapped, and women are forced to have deeply desired pregnancies terminated.
The pain of individual families isn’t easily quantifiable, but the words of the couple interviewed by Al Jazeera begin to show their agony.
The man says to reporters in a voice shaking slightly with emotion, “The child we do have is ten years old. She has been feeling my wife’s belly as it has grown larger and larger over the months. And my daughter says, ‘I will have a little brother soon.’ I don’t know how I can possibly explain to her what has happened.”
Inside the hospital, Xiao Ai Ying’s voice is soft and sad as she speaks to reporters. As she tells her story, she cradles her distended stomach, which still contains her dead fetus. “I have felt the baby moving round and round in my belly,” she says. “Can you imagine how I feel now?”
* * * * *
My transcript of AlJazeeraEnglish’s video “China’s one child policy”
Video: A man and an apparently heavily pregnant woman sit on what look like hospital cots. Their faces are not shown.
Text: “China One Child Policy: Woman forced to abort second baby.”
Voiceover: “These are pictures filmed by Al Jazeera after sneaking into a Chinese hospital. Xiao Ai Ying would only let us film from the neck down. She is terrified of retribution. Her crime? Violating the country’s one-child policy. Her punishment? A forced abortion when she was eight months pregnant.”
Xiao Ai Ying: [Speaking softly in (I believe) Mandarin, translation by voiceover.] “I have felt the baby moving round and round in my belly. Can you imagine how I feel now?”
Video: Filmed in what looks like a car or minivan, a man in glasses in the back seat and a woman in the front seat, twisted around to see the camera.
Voiceover: “Her husband, also scared, would only speak to us briefly outside the hospital, and not out in the open.”
Luo Yan Qua: [Speaking in Mandarin, translation by voiceover]: “There were many men surrounding my wife. They held her arms behind her back, pushed her head against the wall, kicked her stomach, and I don’t know if they were trying to give her a miscarriage.”
Video: Shot of green barred doors.
Voiceover: “The police locked her up here, and gave her unborn baby a lethal injection.”
Video: Xiao Ai Ying’s stomach.
Voiceover: “What you’re looking at now is Xiao Ai Ying with a dead fetus still inside her.”
Video: Luo Yan Qua in car.
Luo Yan Qua: [translation in voiceover] “The child we do have is ten years old. She has been feeling my wife’s belly as it has grown larger and larger over the months. And my daughter says, ‘I will have a little brother soon.’ I don’t know how I can possibly explain to her what has happened.”
Video: Bustling street of Xiamen. During brief clips of parents and children on the street are shown — a man with a child squirming on his lap, a woman carrying an infant, a woman holding the hand of a small child.
Voiceover: “What’s unexpected about this case is where it took place in Xiamen. Forced abortions sometimes happen in remote areas of China, but this one occurred in one of the country’s most modern cities.”
Video: IV bags of fluid, camera moves to show a woman and baby lying on a hospital bed with a woven straw mattress. The woman is clasping a cell phone. A man (possibly her husband, as he’s wearing street clothes, but may be a nurse or doctor) bends over the bed and seems to be massaging her thigh, vulva, or abdomen. The video shows shots of the IV drip in the woman’s hand, then her baby moving sleepily in a blue blanket. The camera then moves back to show a wider shot of the ward, with other pregnant women on similar beds and sitting in chairs near the beds. There is a brief shot of a woman’s pregnant stomach as she receives an ultrasound.
Voiceover: “In recent years, there have been plenty of mothers who have violated China’s one-child policy. They usually pay a fine, anywhere from 1 to 40,000 U.S. dollars, but are then often sterilized to prevent them from having another child. Forced abortions are not condoned by the central government, but it clearly still happens.”
Video: Reporter Melissa Chan speaks to the camera with a backdrop of a busy Xiamen street.
Melissa Chan: “Every few years, you hear the possibility that the government might end the one-child policy and allow couples to have more. But for the Luo family, those considerations are too late. Melissa Chan, Al Jazeera, Xiamen, Southeastern China.”
Photo from RightIndex's flickr, reused under Creative Commons Attribution license.