China: "forced abortion" photograph highlights brutality of one child policy

Photo of woman forced to abort seven month old foetus causes outrage.

By now, you may well have seen, or heard about, the photograph that has shocked the world. In the image – which we have chosen not to reproduce here – a young woman lies dazed on a hospital bed, next to her recently aborted foetus.

The woman is Feng Jiamei, from the Shaanxi province of China. She was forced to undergo the procedure in the seventh month of pregnancy, because she could not afford to pay the hefty fine incurred by having a second baby under the country’s strict one child policy.

Feng’s husband Deng Jiyuan told the Global Times that five men forcibly delivered a poisonous injection to his wife, after making her sign an agreement to having the abortion. He said that she was traumatised, which perhaps goes without saying. The brutality is difficult to fathom, not least given that a baby born at seven months has a strong chance of survival.

While local officials in Zhenping county, where the incident took place, denied that Feng was coerced into having the abortion, a preliminary investigation by the Shaanxi Provincial Population and Family Planning Commission confirmed that it had been forced.

The one child policy was introduced in 1979 to slow the birth rate. Under the rule, married, urban couples must have only one child. There are exemptions for rural couples, ethnic minorities, and parents with no siblings, but they are rare.

The Shaanxi Provincial Council expressed shock at the incident, and promised to investigate and bring the perpertrators to justice. However, US-based charity All Girls Allowed notes that forced abortion, often referred to by the euphemistic term of “remedial measures” (bujiju cuoshi) is explicitly endorsed in the regulations of 18 of China’s 31 provincial jurisdictions.

Due to the one child policy, China’s rates of abortion are sky-high: on average, 8 million women have one each year. There are 300,000 officials whose job is to enforce the one child policy, backed up by a network of 92 million members who assist with enforcement and informing. The methods used vary between provinces, but include random pregnancy tests on married women, and unspecified “follow up” services, which can include abortion or sterilisation. All Girls Allowed reports that the vaginas of rural woman are routinely checked for recent births, while officials are often given a financial incentive structure to meet abortion and sterilisation quotas. It is easy to see how this policy leads to coercion.

All of these details are quite shocking in their cruelty and invasiveness. Under these policies, a woman’s body is treated as public property, an object rife for inspection. Perhaps it is little wonder that China is the only country in the world where women are more likely to commit suicide than men. The Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Centre reported in 2009 that the suicide rate for women was three times higher than for men, and around 500 women in China kill themselves each day.

Underpinning the whole feminist argument in favour of abortion rights is the notion of choice: a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, and to choose whether she gives birth to a child. This incident acts as a powerful reminder that abortion itself can be used as a tool for oppression, violently undermining a woman’s control over her own body.

Forced abortion victim Zhang Yuhong attends a press conference calling for an end to gendercide in Washington, June 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.