Chen Guangcheng Controversy Should Also Shine Light On Forced Abortions in China


The story of the escaped blind Chinese lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng continues to dominate headlines as the media focus on the potential diplomatic breakdown between the U.S. and China over human rights. Chen's fervent opposition to the practice of forced abortions and sterilizations that eventually led to his imprisonment and subsequent house arrest has similarly received greater attention from audiences overseas, yet continues to be overshadowed by the dramatic elements of the dissident's escape and developments in the U.S.-China tension.  

Chen came to prominence in 2005 when he exposed local authorities in Linyi who were forcing thousands of residents to undergo abortion or sterilization. His activism brought the issue to the attention of the central government, which subsequently launched an investigation into the abuses committed by the local government. Eventually a few officials were detained or fired, but not before they launched a smear campaign that accused Chen of receiving funding from foreign sources. This tactic effectively discouraged Chinese leaders from publicly intervening on Chen's behalf, since they would have been caught in the middle of a political controversy that could have damaged their careers.    In 2006, he was tried and eventually imprisoned for four years for leading a protest against officials who had confined him to his house while beating villagers who came to help him. Just as Linyi government officials had accused Chen of receiving funds from foreign sources, the Chinese state media now criticize him for being a "pawn of the U.S." 

Forced abortions in the remote regions of eastern China illustrate the sordid extremes of local government in trying to reach the quotas set by the One-Child policy. There have been alleged reports of pregnant women who were dragged from their homes by local authorities and then taken to clinics, where they were held down while doctors began the abortion. Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, an organization that opposes forced abortion and sexual slavery, says that "forced abortion is not a choice [...] it is official government rape."

This violation of women's rights in China draws parallels to the abortion controversy in the United States. Earlier this year, vehement opposition against state laws requiring women to submit to mandatory ultrasounds argued that such actions were medically unnecessary and were only used to deter women from going through with abortion, effectively violating a woman's personal rights.  Fortunately, the more controversial clause of the anti-abortion legislation in Virginia requiring women to submit to transvaginal probing if necessary for the ultrasound did not pass, which, according to Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, "would [have] constitute[d] rape under the federal definition."

In developing regions of China where the boundaries of official regulation and coercion are ambiguous, forced abortions by local governments not only demoralize its victims and their families, but threaten Chinese societal stability. Since its enactment in 1979, the One-Child Policy has prevented more than 400 million births in China. The commission also reports that 13 million abortions occur nationwide every year, which averages about 35,000 a day. The number of forced abortions remains unknown.  With a ratio of 118 males to 100 females, this gender imbalance reminds us of how traditional Chinese biases that have driven deplorable actions such as female fetus abortion, female infanticide, and pre-birth sexual selection have become magnified partly due to the standards set forth by the One-Child Policy. Some in rural areas who adhere strictly to traditional Confucian beliefs still depend on males to carry the family name, while the status of females are relatively marginalized or neglected until they marry off to another family. So couples often want their only child to be a boy, and in some instances in which they give birth to a girl, authorities may allow them to have a second child. Although regulations and local enforcement vary across the country, heavy taxes or family planning fines are imposed on people who violate the policy. Thus these penalties greatly impact poorer Chinese than the wealthy, who are able to pay the government for allowing a second child.

Forced abortions will continue to be a problem, regardless of central policies banning such practices because enforcement of the One-Child Policy is still left largely to provincial governments. However, this issue should receive more discussion in public media now that Chen's controversy has become the centerpiece for the future of U.S.-China relations. The United States will eventually have to address these injustices if it wants to continue to be perceived as a symbol of democratic ideals and vanguard of human rights.