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.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.