China's Very Different Battle Over Reproductive Rights

Government-imposed forced abortion makes for a unique angle on the idea of "pro-choice."

May 2, 2012 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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Chinese reproductive-rights activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s escape from house arrest last week has been all over the US news, unsurprising considering he has allegedly taken refuge in the American embassy in Beijing. As a result, CNN has a very thorough article on one of the more gruesome and underreported human rights abuses of the modern era: the issue of forced abortions and sterilizations in China.

Legally, Chinese couples are limited to one child, unless they are able to get a permit to have additional offspring. You might think that couples who fail to comply might face fines, or some other relatively straightforward punishment, but in some provinces the one-child rule is enforced so strictly that it involves literally dragging pregnant women from their homes and giving them abortions (and in some cases, IUDs) against their will.

Sometimes the consequences are even more severe. In October 2011, a woman who was six months pregnant died during a forced abortion in eastern China, according to Women's Rights Without Frontiers.

Last month, a woman in the same region was forced to undergo an abortion while nine months pregnant, the organization reported. The baby was born alive, but then was drowned in a bucket, according to the organization. A photo of the infant's body floating in the bucket was circulated on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, sparking widespread outrage.

Many Chinese women who underwent forced abortions and who have since moved to the US testified before Congress last year, detailing their experiences. Liu Ping received five forced abortions before being given an IUD, despite her protestations that the device could aggravate a kidney condition. She was required to attend monthly appointments at which officials confirmed her IUD had not been removed (apparently, some women attempt to take out government-enforced IUDs themselves), and that she was not pregnant again.

In the ultimate absurdity, the women are expected to pay for both their abortions and their IUD installation.

The horrors of these abuses cannot be overstated. Chen Guangcheng went to prison as a result of having filed a class action lawsuit against the Chinese government on behalf of women who had been forced to undergo sterilization and/or abortion, the government responded by accusing Chen of working for foreign interests. After a secretive trial in which he was denied access to his own lawyers, Chen was convicted of destruction of property and "organizing a mob to disrupt traffic," for which he was sentenced to four years and three months' imprisonment.

This is how Chen wound up under the house arrest (he left prison in 2010) from which he has so recently escaped. 

"Chen may be safe for the moment, but the women for whom he risked everything are not," said Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, a California-based organization that describes itself as a "broad-based, international coalition that opposes forced abortion and sexual slavery in China."

"Forced abortion is not a choice," Littlejohn said. "It is official government rape."

It is estimated that China is home to roughly 35,000 abortions every day -- that number comes from the Chinese government itself -- and not all of them are forced. It is not known how many abortions are imposed and how many are done willingly, but gender-selective abortion is extremely common (unsurprisingly, girls are aborted, and some worry that future generations will be facing a serious gender gap as a result).

Certainly in the US we face a frightening battle over reproductive rights, but let’s not forget that it is not simply the right to abortion that matters -- it is the right to self-determination, and a  commitment to trusting women with their bodies.