It’s been over three weeks since Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape from house arrest made first made New York Times headlines, and the controversy and coverage surrounding the event have grown exponentially. The Guangcheng affair has not only sparked a rift in US-China relations; it has also become an election-year issue after Mitt Romney declared the Obama administration’s response a "dark day for freedom, and a day of shame for the Obama administration."
The domestic and international politics surrounding Chen’s story are complex and interesting in their own right. But beneath the headlines, another, more consequential story is being missed: the chilling details of a massive assault on reproductive freedom taking place in China.
Chen, a long-time activist, first came under fire from authorities in Linyi province after he exposed a widespread campaign of forced abortions and sterilizations being waged mostly against women (in China, 8.9 percent of men have had sterilization surgery, compared to 37.6 percent of women). The campaign, taking place under the auspices of China’s one-child policy, aims at stabilizing and reducing the country’s population of roughly 1.3 billion.
Top-down population control programs around the world have drawn harsh criticism from thoughtful feminists and reproductive rights advocates for some time, but the scale of China’s coercive family initiative sets it apart. A report, compiled from Chen Gaungcheng’s notes and released on the internet by Women’s Rights Without Frontiers (an organization whose politics are ambiguous but has worked closely with Gaungcheng), notes that there were 130,000 forced abortions and sterilizations in Linyi in 2005 alone.
Numbers that big are hard to fathom – roughly the equivalent of coercively sterilizing the entire population of Savannah, Georgia in one year – and of course, the data from Linyi tells us nothing about how pervasive it was – or is – throughout the rest of China.
Each of these 130,000 stories is personal, and the details are often horrifying. Take the story of Yeqing Ji, which she shared at a Congressional hearing in November 2011:
When she became pregnant again in 2006, Ji said local authorities confronted her and told her she was breaking the law.
"We were willing to take the punishment of fines and losing our jobs. It wasn't as important to us as our child," she said through a translator.
This time, the authorities refused payment in fines and "dragged" her outside and beat her husband. Ji said she was sedated and the abortion was performed while she was unconscious. They had also installed an intrauterine device into her uterus after the abortion and told her she was responsible for its cost. Ji, now 35, had the device removed in the U.S., but her doctor found cervical erosion that will hinder her ability to have children.
"After the abortion, I felt empty, as if something was scooped out of me. My husband and I had been so excited for our new baby. Now, suddenly, all that hope and joy and excitement had disappeared, all in an instant," she said.
Another aspect of China’s one-child policy that often goes unnoticed is its connection to eugenics. China’s Law on Population and Birth Planning clearly states that the one-child policy aims at the "enhancement…of the quality of China's population.” As Mara Hvistendahl details in her book Unnatural Selection, many of these coercive family planning efforts target girls, resulting in a birth ratio unnaturally skewed in favor of men. Also targeted are persons with disabilities. According to public policy scholars Heidi Fjeld and Gry Sagli, "the policy of prevention of impairment has been...powerfully enforced as an essential component of the national 'one child policy.”
Unfortunately, in-depth coverage of these stories has been largely passed over by media outlets in favor of the political hullabaloo surrounding Chen’s escape. Some articles written in the early stages of the Chen affair, like this one in the Washington Post, don’t even mention forced abortion and sterilization or the one-child policy at all, describing Guangcheng merely as a “lawyer” and “dissident.” While there are exceptions to the rule, mentioning forced abortion and sterilization as an aside seems par for the course across the mainstream-media board.
While a number of right-wing pro-life news outlets have called out the mainstream media for neglecting the forced abortion issue (here, here, and here), they have also used the story to further their own anti-choice agenda, reframing Chen Guangcheng as an anti-abortion pro-lifer and attempting to spin the Obama administration’s response as a Democratic “war on women” (You can find elaborate coverage of the pro-life spin cycle operation here).
This re-made, right-wing narrative is not only false; it also distorts the real story. Guangcheng isn’t ”anti-choice” and the issue in China isn’t “abortion.” It’s forced abortion.
Like Chen, reproductive rights and justice advocates oppose forced sterilization and forced abortion as violent and coercive assaults on women and their reproductive freedom. These practices are simply unconscionable. They inflict physical harm, strip women of their bodily integrity, and violate basic human dignity.
As one blogger over at Feministing argues,
These kinds of coercions disproportionately affect people of color, poor people, trans people, and other historically marginalized people. For all these reasons and more, the issue of forced sterilization and forced abortion is clearly a feminist issue.
That’s why I’m disappointed that Guangcheng is not being hailed more widely as a feminist hero and champion of reproductive rights. While it’s not clear what his position would be on a wide range of reproductive freedoms, it is certain that his crusade against forced abortion is a feminist cause. More apt than the whitewashed “human rights activist” label he’s been given in the news is “reproductive rights activist” and perhaps even “feminist.”
Whatever Guangcheng’s positions on reproductive rights might be, it’s clear that forced sterilization and abortion are issues that everyone should take seriously. Let’s hope that media outlets begin giving the public the context of his story, and that opponents of abortion rights stop distorting it.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Disability, Genetic Selection, Human Rights, Media Coverage, Other Countries, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights
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