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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.