Not all forced abortions require force

Last week, a photo emerged on weibo of a woman laying next to her aborted daughter*, and the Chinese Internet exploded in anger over how the One Child Policy was being implemented (The New Yorker has a good overview). I didn’t comment on this last week, not because of self-censorship or a disinterest in the story, but because I had failed to consider just how powerful that image was.

In the hospital where I work, dozens of abortions take place everyday in the name of family planning; I had assumed most people were aware of the practice, and as I’ve discussed before abortions aren’t usually seen as a moral choice. While most of these would be considered “voluntary,” if there were no policy, these women would be giving birth. In some sense, most of the abortions that take place in the Family Planning office are forced, even if they don’t require physical force.

A nurse told me last year that in some cases the child had reached maturity, and would have been viable had it been delivered. In one case, she had witnessed an infant taking its last breaths on the operating table, but it was in violation of the policy and was not to be treated as a life. The child took several minutes to die. The nurse waited until she got home to cry for her. Other nurses from the OB/GYN department have told me that they feel what is happening in their department is wrong, but they say it is pointless to question the policy. If they were to refuse to perform abortions they would be fired.

In response to the firestorm of criticism family planning officials were let go. These are scapegoats. What would have happened if these low-level officials had exceeded their birth quotas? Would these officials have taken such drastic actions if they thought they would be punished for them? As long as this policy exists this story will repeat, because it relies on the coercive force of local officials for compliance. The unquestionable power of officials and murky laws enable this kind of behavior.

As an unnamed local official said to the Wall Street Journal:

“Grass-roots comrades aren’t stupid, but this is what they’re forced to do. This is a problem with the entire system.”

Global Times tried to spin this story, saying that the laws to protect women from this treatment were already in place and that it was simply a problem of enforcement. I think most readers of this blog already understand that this is not the only law in China that is flouted by local officials. However the most despicable thing about this editorial was that just weeks ago the same paper denounced Chen Guangcheng as a criminal – his unspoken crime was opposing forced abortions in Linyi.

Similar stories have all been told before online, but none of them failed to draw the same amount of discussion as this single image. Perhaps we’ve given the Internet alone too much credit in the fight for global human rights. While it is an essential tool for spreading information, the ubiquitous camera phone has become the best tool for capturing abuse. Images are much harder to deny or condemn as products of the west, and more importantly, images haunt one’s conscience in a way that words do not.

Had the scene simply been described, it would not have drawn the visceral reactions that came from seeing the image. It forced people to confront the violent nature of the One Child Policy in a way that essays and editorials never could have achieved. Something is lost when we speak in terms of “400 million prevented births,” that only emerges when we see the effect on a single family grieving for the loss of their daughter.

*I don’t link to graphic images as policy on this blog, but the image is widely available on other China blogs

10 responses to “Not all forced abortions require force”

  1. Someone thinks this story is hao-tastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  2. anonymous reader says:

    “Similar stories have all been told before online, but none of them failed to draw the same amount of discussion as this single image.”

    none of them?

    • Tom says:

      This image drew at least 3 articles from People’s Daily, temporarily had a dedicated page on Global Times, and has drawn articles from many of the largest international papers. Additionally weibo has been buzzing like mad, and for the first time, co-workers are talking with me about this very sensitive issue.

      I can’t think of another instance of forced abortion in the last 5 years that has drawn this kind of discussion of the one child policy.

  3. pu li says:

    The one child policy is an absolute necessity in China, if the country is to cope with the food/air/education issues. In this day and age there is absolutely no need to get pregnant unless either deliberately or carelessly.

    In this case, had the woman completed the paperwork as required and as informed, nothing further would have been said or done.

    Agreed, the termination at such a late stage was reprehensible but the whole situation was avoidable by action on both sides.

    • Tom says:

      I think this is generally a kind of 素质 argument that discredits the ability of Chinese people to think for themselves. People want more children in the countryside because the current system does not give them security with only a single child to care for them. I think the argument could easily be made, that if the Communist Party was really holding up its promises to the masses, such a draconian policy would not be a necessity.
      Why is it that only the Chinese people are incapable of making their own decisions, do you really think so lowly of them?

  4. Joel says:

    This is my favourite China blog. Thank you for providing the info without the image.

  5. Joel says:

    I found that this collection of translated slogans, obviously not from first-tier urban areas, helps fill in the social context a bit behind local officials’ motivation to stick to their quotas and willingness to go to such brutal measures.

  6. jixiang says:

    And why are “400 million prevented births” such a dreadful thing? If China continues to be overcrowded, it will be the poorest Chinese who really suffer the consequences, not foreign expats like the writer of this blog. Perhaps you could spare a thought for that? No offence intended.

    • Tom says:

      400 million prevented births in itself is not a terrible thing, it’s that the policy has removed individual choice. I think family planning is a great tool for helping to eliminate poverty, and I’ve never said otherwise. What is wrong, is women being dragged to a hospital and being forced to have an abortion.
      I’ve lived in rural China, I know what poverty looks like. For many of these families, having a planned second child would be a huge economic advantage (this is why many rural families have children in violation of the law). Family planning could accomplish that without relying on the draconian practices that become necessary with the one child policy.

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