China's one-child policy puts a price on human life

A woman forced to undergo a late-term abortion receives 70,600 yuan in compensation.

How much is a human life worth? The Chinese authorities appear to have valued it at 70,600 yuan (£7,160). That is the amount they have agreed to pay to the family of Feng Jianmei, a woman forced to undergo a late-term abortion because she could not afford the fine for breaking China’s strict one-child policy.

The case, which I blogged about last month, caused outrage worldwide after a photograph of Feng with the dead seven month old foetus was distributed online.

The family – who suffered harassment and were labelled “traitors” for talking to foreign media – had planned to take legal action but have decided not to after the government announced the payout. Feng’s husband, Deng Jiyuan, told the Associated Press that his family wanted to return to normality.

While forced abortions are technically illegal in China, they are not unusual, given that the 300,000 officials employed to enforce the one-child policy receive financial incentives to meet quotas of abortions and sterilisations.

The sheer violence of what happened to Feng – who was hooded, bundled into a car and given an injection that induced a stillbirth – is difficult to comprehend. The emotive power of this incident has segued into a wider debate about the one-child policy, with prominent researchers both outside and within China urging authorities to ease the restrictions.

Chinese government researchers argued that the policy must be relaxed because of the drastically ageing population and an impending labour shortage. A group of Chinese scholars also signed a letter calling for a change to the law, reiterating the risk to economic sustainability – with the imminent crisis of a shortage of young workers – but also the human rights issue. James Liang, one of the signatories, said: "From an economic perspective, the one-child policy is irrational. From a human-rights perspective, it's even less rational."

So what are the chances of a change? If past example is anything to go by, they are slim – calls for a relaxation of the rules are nothing new. The regime still believes that there are too many people (an impression borne out by overcrowded urban centres) and besides, is risk-averse. The sheer size of China makes any central change slow.

While officials debate the economic and rational arguments for and against the one-child policy, women and families will continue to suffer. Last month, a former official with China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission made an astonishing tearful apology on television in Hong Kong. In an interview with Pheonix TV, Zhang Erli said: "I felt sorry for our Chinese women. I feel guilty. Chinese women have made huge sacrifices. A responsible government should repay them."

But "repayment" goes little way towards tackling the trauma of a forced abortion, or the invasiveness of vaginal checks and random pregnancy tests which are commonplace in some areas. Zhang Kai, a lawyer advising Feng and her family, dismissed the pay off: "70,000 for a person's life? It is too little."

The best repayment would be to end this policy, which is being used as a brutal tool against women and their rights over their own bodies.

A baby looks up at its mother on a street in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Show Hide image

No, single men do not have a “right” to reproduce

The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies.

Last year, Katha Pollitt wrote an article for The Nation in which she asked why the left was simultaneously making progress with equal marriage while falling behind on abortion rights. “The media ,” she wrote, “present marriage equality and reproductive rights as ‘culture war’ issues, as if they somehow went together. But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think.”

She highlighted the ways in which the right can afford to cede ground on marriage equality while continuing to deny females bodily autonomy. She is right to do so. While both reproductive choice and gay rights may be classed as gender issues, each has its own very specific relationship to patriarchy.

A woman’s desire to control her reproductive destiny will always be in direct opposition to patriarchy’s desire to exploit female bodies as a reproductive resource. The social institutions that develop to support the latter – such as marriage – may change, but the exploitation can remain in place.

This has, I think, caused great confusion for those of us who like to see ourselves as progressive. We know that the idealisation of the heterosexual nuclear family, coupled with the demonisation of all relationships seen as “other”, has caused harm to countless individuals. We refuse to define marriage as solely for the purpose of procreation, or to insist that a family unit includes one parent of each sex.

We know we are right in thinking that one cannot challenge patriarchy without fundamentally revising our understanding of family structures. Where we have gone wrong is in assuming that a revision of family structures will, in and of itself, challenge patriarchy. On the contrary, it can accommodate it.

This is why all feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.

According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:

“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”

It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.

I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.

I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.

There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.

In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.

This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.

Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.

“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?

Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.

The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.