Mothers across the globe celebrated Mother’s Day on Sunday with their husbands and children. But for many women in China, Mother’s Day was a haunting reminder of the cost of their country’s harsh reproductive laws.
While abortion rates in China have in the past been numbered at 13 million per year, according to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015, the real number is almost double.
According to the report, released April 12, the number of annual abortions in China is actually 10 million higher than previously thought, bringing the total to a staggering 23 million a year, with no specification on how many of them are forced.
The reason for the increase, according to the report, is that the 13 million covers only the number of abortions in official, government facilities, whereas the additional 10 million were reported by an official Chinese news outlet for non-governmental facilities.
The report states that “the National Health Population and Family Planning Commission reported that 13 million women annually terminated unplanned pregnancies.”
“An official news media outlet also reported at least an additional 10 million chemically induced abortions were performed in nongovernment facilities,” the report read, stating that “Government statistics on the percentage of all abortions that were non-elective was not available.”
Zhang Anni is a classic example of the nightmare that China’s restrictive birth policy forces on countless women, as well as the hope and promise that is lost daily to forced abortions and gender-biased abortions in the country.
The second daughter of Chinese dissident and human rights activist Zhang Lin, Anni, 13, was nearly forcibly aborted numerous times when her mother was just six months pregnant.
Her family had been persecuted relentlessly for her father’s writings and activism against the Chinese Communist Party, to the extent that he was jailed numerous times and tortured with cruel punishments, such as jumping on his back, hands and feet, resulting in injuries that put him in a wheelchair.
Since Anni was Zhang Lin’s second child at a time when it was still illegal to have two children under the Communist Party’s strict One-Child Policy, her mother was targeted for forced abortion, with family planning police showing up and pounding on their door daily to drag her out for an abortion.
Anni’s mother was so distressed that she contemplated suicide, but fought against the idea in order to protect her daughter’s life.
In the end, Zhan Lin was able to save Anni from being aborted by convincing the family planning police that she was the first child of his second wife. However, his constant blogging about the brutal pressure being placed on his family also put the government in a bad light, so they decided to back off.
But that wasn’t the end. At 10 years old Anni became the youngest person in China to be detained in prison. She was arrested after school due to her father’s activism and kept overnight without food or a blanket, and was released the next day only after hours of haggling on the part of her father to get her out.
Given the precariousness of the situation and knowing he would likely go back to prison, Zhang Lin wanted to get Anni out of China, and contacted women’s rights activist Reggie Littlejohn for help.
President and founder of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an organization dedicated to fighting forced abortion and gender-biased abortion in China, Littlejohn and her husband agreed to take in both Anni and her older sister Ruli. Four people were jailed for helping them to get out of the country.
Now, after just two and a half years in the United States, Anni has gone from speaking no English to getting straight-A’s and is one of the top students in her class. She began piano lessons shortly after arriving to the U.S., and recently won a competition to play in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Littlejohn, who has taken on full parental responsibilities for Ruli and Anni, told CNA May 4 that to her, Anni is “an example.”
“As a second daughter, girls like that are commonly aborted due to gendercide. And also her mother was almost forcibly aborted…her mother was so distressed about this that she actually contemplated suicide, it just tore her apart,” Littlejohn said.
However, she said that when she looks at Anni, whom she considers her own daughter, “I think of how beautiful and how brilliant she is and this is the kind of talent and beauty and light and love and joy that is being lost through forced abortion and sex-selective abortion in China every day.”
While many might believe that these practices have stopped with China’s recent implementation of a two-child policy, which went into effect Jan. 1, Littlejohn says this is far from being true.
“The new Two-Child Policy is nothing to celebrate about. They used to kill every child after one, now they kill every child after two. So the entire infrastructure of coercion is still in place,” she said.
“You still have to have government permission to have two children. It’s two children per couple, so if you’re not in a couple, you can’t have a kid. So single women are still forcibly aborted in China and that accounts for a very large proportion of the abortions,” she added.
The State Department’s report also indicated a system of coercion surrounding reproductive rights in China, reporting that “the country’s birth-limitation policies retained harshly coercive elements in law and practice.”
The report spoke of the “intense pressure” put on families by the police to enforce birth quotas, resulting in “instances of local family-planning officials using physical coercion to meet government goals.”
“Such practices included the mandatory use of birth control and the forced abortion of unauthorized pregnancies,” it read, noting that in cases in which the family already had two children, “one parent was often required to undergo sterilization.”
There are even links between job promotion and success in meeting the birth limitations. Police job promotion, in particular, “provided a powerful structural incentive for officials to employ coercive measures to meet population goals.”
While officially prohibited in China, sex-selective abortions “continued because of traditional preference for male children and the birth-limitation policy,” the report stated.
“Female infanticide, gender-biased abortions, and the abandonment and neglect of baby girls remained problems due to the traditional preference for sons and the birth-limitation policy.”
Littlejohn said she doesn’t expect the number of gender-biased abortions to go down even under the two-child policy, because when a family has a daughter for their first child, “it’s routine to abort or abandon” a second daughter so that the family can reserve the place for a boy.
She said she has been discouraged that the amount of international pressure to stop these atrocities from happening in China has dropped after the country’s leaders changed the rules on the one-child policy.
“The Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine announced this change as the abandonment of the One-Child Policy and the western media just picked up on it. So people think that the problem of forced abortion and sex-selective abortion is over,” she said.
However, if the State Department’s 2015 report is any indication, this is a trend that won’t end any time soon.
Littlejohn said that as time goes on, she expects more cases of forced abortions to leak out of China, making it obvious that the problem still exists. However, getting new cases isn’t easy due to the trauma and persecution women face if they decide to speak out.
“If a woman is forcibly aborted…she’s been completely traumatized, she’s lost her child and she has suffered extreme sexual violence, basically. I equate forced abortion with official government rape,” Littlejohn said.
Then if the woman lets news of her forced abortion leak to western media, “she and her family are going to be intensely and heavily persecuted, to add onto all the trauma.”
“For every woman who will step forward and say ‘this happened to me,’ there are a thousand or a million that are going to be silent because they do not want to endure the persecution of themselves and their families on top of the forced abortion and the loss of a child that they’ve already suffered,” she said.
In order to help draw attention to the situation Littlejohn urged people to watch a brief, 4 minute video her organization produced called “Stop Forced Abortion: China’s War Against Women” in order be informed, and encouraged donations to their “Save a Girl Campaign.”
“We’re in one little area of China, but if we had resources we could be saving girls all over China. Every little girl who is vulnerable to sex-selective abortion deserves to be saved.”