Can they succeed in a country with the most abortions in the world?
On July 14, a U.S. anti-abortion group released an undercover video of an employee of abortion provider Planned Parenthood casually discussing, over wine and salad, the harvesting and donation of fetal tissue for medical research. The video provoked a nationwide outcry among pro-life activists and politicians, who have called for investigations into the national reproductive health care provider’s practices.
The news quickly reached China, and within days the video had been posted to Chinese video streaming site iQiyi, where it received more than 170,000 views. China has the highest number of abortions in the world, with an estimated 13 million performed annually. Many in China view abortion as a purely personal decision, a necessary if sad option for people in difficult situations. Unlike in the United States, where abortion clinics face tight restrictions in some areas, similar facilities in China are readily available and widely publicized. (Some even offer promotions for students, with one hospital in the southwestern city of Chongqing advertising a special 50 percent discount for patients with student IDs.) Yet despite widespread support for abortion access, the government’s strict limits on family size, and tight controls on civil society and religion, China is home to a small but growing number of pro-life activists who deploy tactics that many Americans would find familiar.
One such group of activists operates in the southwestern city of Chengdu. On May 31, 2012, Wang Yi, the pastor of a local official church called Autumn Rain Church, posted an open letter on microblogging platform Weibo calling for citizens to join him in demonstrating in front of abortion clinics. The next day — June 1, International Children’s Day — Wang and members of his church held a protest at a clinic and handed out flyers. Since 2012, Autumn Rain worshipers have run a campaign each year on June 1 called “No Abortion on Children’s Day.”
Campaign members now operate social media accounts on microblogging platform Weibo and mobile messaging app WeChat, each with the slogan “Opposing abortion for Jesus” and a small number of followers. For the past three years prior to the holiday, the Christian group has distributed flyers, held small demonstrations, and once even ran a series of ads on public buses. Photos of the demonstrations and pro-life statements posted online do not seem to have been censored, perhaps because they are usually shared no more than a few dozen times. This year, the Chengdu pro-life group also created a video to go along with the “No Abortion on Children’s Day” campaign, which received around 9,000 views on the group’s WeChat account. In the video, one group member interviewed thirteen passers-by on their views of abortion. Holding up a life-size model of a two-month old fetus, the activist first asked each interviewee whether they thought the fetus was a child, whether they believed abortion was murder, and whether or not they were opposed. Respondents who said abortion was murder but stated that they still supported it under certain conditions were challenged.
The Chengdu pro-life group’s tactics, and even its social media content, closely resembles the methods and rhetoric of the pro-life movement in the United States. A May 30 post from the Chengdu group’s WeChat public account featured an infographic with images of skulls, grouped together in the shape of the national map, with a headline in a dramatic font: “There Are 13 Million Abortions Every Year in China.” During this year’s protest, a handful of protesters gathered in front of the Zangnan Women’s Hospital in Chengdu. Their faces downcast, they carried large posters with gruesome photos of aborted fetuses and headlines that read, “A fetus is a child too” and, “Who is qualified to determine life or death?” The group also appears to watch the U.S. pro-life scene closely. Two days after the video outcry involving Planned Parenthood (whose name in Chinese means “Planned Birth Association”), No Abortion on Children’s Day posted an article about the video. “It doesn’t matter if the government forces it or if the parents are willing,” read the comment posted alongside the article. “There is no such thing as ‘planned birth’ — there is only planned murder.”
But pro-life advocates, like other grassroots organizations in authoritarian China, can operate only by remaining small and strictly nonpolitical. According to a July 26 article by World, a U.S.-based Christian magazine, one church in China formed a partnership with a local hospital to open a crisis pregnancy center, painted pink and yellow, where volunteers speak with abortion patients about alternative options. Another organization in China provides financial assistance so that women can pay the fines that would otherwise push them towards abortion. Yet another, China Life Alliance, is U.S.-based but seeks change in China by helping to sponsor safe houses that serve Chinese women “at high risk for forced abortions,” according to the organization’s website. It also helps mobilize “abortion rescue teams,” volunteers who walk into abortion clinics and speak directly with patients to try to convince them to pursue other options, as well as providing training seminars for local churches. According to a map posted on the CLA website, pro-life volunteers operate in 29 cities around China. CLA did not respond to a Foreign Policy request for comment.
Christianity is not the only religious force in China that opposes abortion. Buddhism, with more than 244 million adherents according to a 2012 Pew study, the most recent such study available, is the largest religion in China. It’s known for its strong opposition to killing of all kinds, and according to Buddhist understanding, human life begins at conception. In a November 1993 interview, the Dalai Lama, a revered Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who fled China in 1959, told the New York Times that while “abortion, from a Buddhist perspective, is an act of killing.” He added that there were exceptions if the fetus had severe congenital defects, for example, or if having the child would put extreme strain on the parent. Of the 13 interviewed in the Chengdu pro-life group’s video, one respondent, a mother of twin infant boys, cited religion in her opposition to abortion. “According to the Buddha,” she told the pro-life activist, “this is killing.”
Online content that condemns abortion from Buddhist perspectives is readily available in China. In one anonymous article that has been posted widely across Chinese social media and discussion platforms since as early as 2010, one woman detailed how multiple abortions had brought her bad karma. She and her husband had both suffered chronic illnesses, their financial situation became desperate, and finally, her family had come apart at the seams. “If you harm a fetus,” the author quoted a Buddhist scripture as saying, “that person will fall ill here on earth, their life will be short and shallow, and they will descend into the lowest level of hell.” In another widely read April 2012 post on discussion forum Tianya, one devoted Buddhist claimed the ability to see the souls of aborted fetuses. After her Buddhist master told her that abortion created especially bad karma since it involved the “killing of one’s own flesh and blood,” the woman wrote that she erected special prayer tablets in a temple so that the wandering fetal souls could come learn to read Buddhist scripture and find peace.
China’s swiftly evolving society has shifted the demographics of abortion, creating a window for pro-life groups to prevent abortions without directly challenging family planning policies. The procedure used to be primarily associated with married women, but unwed women now undergo the operation in increasing numbers. Chinese attitudes towards sex have become significantly more liberal than they were two decades ago; premarital sex and cohabitation are now relatively common, with 71 percent having sex before marriage, according to one study. That has meant a rise in unplanned pregnancies among a group of women who then seek what could be considered, under the context of Chinese family planning law, preventable abortions. Like a second child, a baby out of wedlock triggers a fine of $6,400, more than the average annual salary in China. To avoid it, unmarried pregnant woman can abort — or they can keep the baby and marry the father. Encouraging unwed couples to marry can thus be an effective pro-life strategy; as one of the Chengdu protesters’ signs read, “It’s only when men don’t take responsibility that women get abortions.”
Chinese web users have, from time to time, come together to denounce news of forced abortions. Government officials in some regions have gotten promoted based in part on success implementing family planning policies, and some officials have approached strict enforcement with draconian zeal. In 2012, a woman named Feng Jianmei posted a photo of her seven-month old dead fetus online, saying that local officials had forcibly injected her with an abortion-inducing drug after she and her husband, who already had one child, were unable to pay the fine for exceeding the limit. The photo spread quickly online and prompted an investigation of her case. In May, the news of one county in the northern province of Shandong enforcing a local “abortion quota” went viral on the Chinese web amid netizen outrage. “How is this different from murder?” read the most popular comment to a People’s Daily post on microblogging platform Weibo announcing the news. “I can understand the country limiting its population,” wrote another user. “But forcing people to have abortions, that is simply fascism.”
Although anti-abortion sentiment and action groups exist in China, none of it has crystallized into anything approaching an organized pro-life movement, which in the United States has pursued legal and legislative means to reduce access or funding for abortion. Average Chinese citizens cannot vote for legislators, and activists seeking legal change are routinely detained or harassed. (Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who rose to international attention after a dramatic escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, spent years under house arrest for his legal defense of victims of forced abortion.) Meanwhile, mass rallies such as the annual March for Life, held every year in Washington, DC, are impossible in China without the party’s blessing, which it grants to street demonstrations only on rare occasions, usually for nationalist protests. In this environment, anti-abortion advocacy within China has aimed at dissuading individual citizens from choosing abortion, rather than seeking to change the law.
At the grassroots, abortion remains a largely accepted practice. Eight out of 13 respondents in the Chengdu pro-life group’s video, for example, agreed that abortion “killed people,” yet most further qualified their answers to add that abortion was a “personal decision,” that it depended on the health of the fetus and the mother, and that it was a morally complex affair. Only two stated that they were unconditionally opposed to abortion. Online, many web users expressed similar views. “The mother’s well-being is more important that of the fetus,” wrote one user in a popular thread on Zhihu, an online question-and-answer forum where young, often well-educated users often engage in in-depth discussions. “If the mother is not capable of looking after the child, giving birth to the baby would cause more damage.” Other justifications for abortion offered on Chinese social media might seem surprising to Western observers. A number of commenters argued that the procedure prevented infanticide — not a distant memory to some in China, where a traditional preference for sons led to a historical practice of female infanticide. One Zhihu user in Chengdu wrote that, decades ago, his grandmother’s sister had desperately wanted a boy; when she gave birth to her first child and discovered it was a girl, she drowned the baby in a small pond. “Sometimes [abortion] is the reasonable choice,” wrote another Zhihu user. “It’s at least a little better than throwing a newborn from a building.”
Even the mother of twins who cited the Buddha in her opposition to abortion was hesitant to apply her own beliefs to others, calling abortion a “deep and layered” question. She paused for a moment to coo at the infant son balanced on her hip, a gentle smile on her face, before turning back to the camera. “This is something,” she concluded, “that society must tolerate.”
Lillian Liu contributed research.