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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.