WASHINGTON — When Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese human-rights lawyer, sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in April, the headlines generated by his escape from house arrest accomplished the unthinkable: global recognition that China has maintained its policy of forced abortion, despite a campaign of denial by Beijing’s government and its allies in global family-planning organizations.
Since Chen’s subsequent arrival in the United States, a cascade of fresh accounts of forced abortion, transmitted through social media, have solidified his legacy and elicited an awkward strategy of damage control.
Last week, Chinese officials announced a “resolution” to one well-publicized case that galvanized the nation: Feng Jianmei, who lost her 7-month-old unborn child after she underwent a forced abortion on June 3, received $11,200 in compensation.
A photo of Feng lying in a hospital bed next to the corpse of her dead child sped from an Internet microblog and soon surfaced in the international media: “Just how much is a dead baby worth?” asked one Time news story, adopting language that departed from the usual pattern of describing an unborn child as a “fetus.”
Few activists are prepared to suggest that the headlines have provoked an official reversal of a national policy that has touched every life in China. But those who have labored for decades to expose the practice of forced abortion and sterilization are making the most of this unexpected period of public outrage and open debate.
That zeal was on display during a July 9 congressional hearing organized by the Subcommittee on Africa, Human Rights and International Programs, spearheaded by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a pro-life leader in the House who has struggled for years to get political traction on the issue.
Smith and the other activists who testified at the hearing issued a spate of demands: Defund and repudiate the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), deny visas to Chinese officials responsible for imposing forced abortions, and increase pressure on Beijing to end the policy.
A series of Republican administrations have barred funding to the UNFPA because of past allegations that it had participated in the one-child policy — a charge repeatedly denied by the organization. Thus, while President George W. Bush cut off U.S. financial support, President Barack Obama quickly reinstated it soon after his inauguration in 2009.
Selling Kids for Adoption
But the activists who testified before the lawmakers last week rejected the assertion of Chinese authorities and their allies that Feng Jianmei’s case was an anomaly and that forced abortion is not widespread in that country. In truth, they charged, coercion continues to define every aspect of the policy’s implementation, beginning with unrelenting pressure on local family-planning cadres to meet quotas or risk demotion.
Married couples who defy the policy face a host of penalties, activists charge, from exorbitant fines totaling more than an entire year’s salary to removal of their second child, who may be sold for foreign adoption, to forced abortion and sterilization. But as conflicting accounts in the media attested over the past month, there is little certainty about the scope of the one-child policy and whether ethnic minorities in China must also comply, to take just one example.
The hearing was scheduled two days before Melinda Gates led an international summit on family planning in London that kicked off a $4-billion campaign to promote contraception in the developing world.
The U.N. Population Fund will play a major role in the Gates Foundation’s global crusade. But the integrity of the UNPFA as an international organization that adheres to the highest standards of human rights and professionalism was attacked by Steven Mosher, the U.S. anthropologist who first documented the horrors of the one-child policy in his 1983 book Broken Earth. Mosher serves as the president of the Population Research Institute (PRI).
Over the past three years, said Mosher, teams of PRI researchers had conducted in-depth analysis of selected UNFPA “model birth-control county” programs in China, the fruit of 80 hours of interviews with witnesses and victims. And while UNFPA officials had promised to identify and eradicate any coercive practices in programs under their formal supervision, PRI researchers confirmed that forced abortions still continued.
Mosher explained that the term “‘model birth-control counties’ originated with the UNFPA, which in 1998 formally communicated to the U.S. House of Representatives that it had reached an agreement with the Chinese government to take over the management of birth control … programs in 32 counties.”
“In these model birth-control counties, the UNFPA assured the Congress that the program would be ‘fully voluntary’ and untainted by coercion,” Mosher recalled.
Subsequently, the UNFPA vouched that in these counties “targets and quotas have been lifted, ‘women are free to voluntarily select the timing and spacing of their pregnancies,’ and ‘abortion is not promoted as a method of family planning.’”
The PRI researchers focused on county programs “where the UNFPA would have had more than a decade to end abuses and bring the birth-control programs into line with generally accepted international standards,” said Mosher.
He identified specific counties by name and provided details to document his charge that “the UNFPA is directly responsible for forced abortions and forced sterilizations in China,” despite the fact that it has publicly claimed to “have stopped such abuses.”
Mosher first learned about the policy of forced abortion in 1980, when he followed a crying Chinese village woman into a facility where she underwent a forced late-term abortion. It was a “vision of hell” that sent him on a crusade to end the practice by sharing his eyewitness account with the world, except that human-rights organizations and women’s groups mostly shrugged off his devastating report.
End the Silence
Rep. Chris Smith and other activists are now calling on the National Organization for Women and other feminist abortion-rights organizations to end their silence on forced abortion in China. At present, however, there are only limited signs that a shift may be under review.
In one striking, if modest example, Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a leading abortion-rights group, wrote a letter to The New York Times denouncing Beijing’s treatment of Feng Jianmei.
“The government’s efforts to dictate the reproductive choices of its citizens through cruel and inhuman treatment are a gross violation of fundamental human rights,” wrote Northup.
But a perusal of the Center for Reproductive Rights’ website shows no evidence that the organization had even issued a press release on the issue. And Rep. Smith told the Register that Northup’s letter confirmed that all “CRR is doing is damage control. They have been AWOL for so long.”
Newcomers to the crusade against forced abortion, he suggested, need to “prove” their commitment with “actions, not rhetoric.” And if human-rights organizations and women’s groups are serious about ending the practice of forced abortion, said Smith, they should press to defund the UNPFA.
“The UNPFA simply follows Chinese law. And what has made it worse is that they have trained thousands of family-planning cadres to be part of this ongoing assault against women,” he said in an interview. “It’s not just what you support, but who you support.”
During the hearing, Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, noted that a group of Chinese academics have used the public debate stirred by Feng’s case to openly discuss the host of social and economic problems created by a population-control regime that has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of girls born, as well a contraction in the number of young people able to care for an aging generation with no social safety net.
Recently, a government newspaper featured commentary from top Chinese researchers calling for a modification of the one-child policy. But opponants of the policy reject recent proposals suggesting that worthy "reforms" might include a shift to a two-child policy.
Littlejohn, for her part, reported that the shortage of young Chinese women has resulted in a growing problem of sex trafficking of vulnerable female immigrants who arrived in China after fleeing North Korea.
North Korean women who escape into China can “immediately get snapped up in the sexual trade.”
If they ask for help, she said, they are treated as an “illegal North Korean migrant and sent back to North Korea for imprisonment or death.”
Littlejohn told the Register that she was heartened that the European Parliament recently passed [a1] a resolution expressing concern about whether its own funds were being used to support forced abortions in China.
In the four years since Littlejohn founded her human-rights organization, she has noted an “incremental” shift in perspective on the issue.
“In 2008, when I became involved in this issue, opposition to forced abortion in China was totally dominated by the pro-life movement. It was not getting any broader traction, and no one was talking about it,” she recalled. “Pro-choice groups seemed to think that if you said anything against forced abortion you were giving ground in some way.”
Littlejohn still doesn’t have much evidence the U.S. abortion-rights movement is poised to reverse course on the issue. But she does believe that stories of women like Feng Jianmei have shaken the complacency of human-rights organizations and women’s groups.
Pastor Bob Fu, a China-born activist who is the founder and president of China Aid, which has worked closely with Chen Guangcheng, testified at the congressional hearing that no woman would voluntarily subscribe to the one-child policy.
He said, “No women in China will be happy to see their womb owned by the family-planning officials — from the date of their marriage to the day they are forcibly sterilized.”