July 2012 was marked by an important event: the Global Family Planning Summit in London. On the 11th, world leaders discussed the need to formulate comprehensive family planning services for the women in their countries. Though some promising commitments were made at the meeting, it was pockmarked by three inadequacies: the lack of a rights based approach, the exclusion of safe abortions from the agenda, and the failure to include men in discussions on family planning.(Read our report)
July also threw new light on China’s coercive family planning policies, and its forced late-term abortions. China first instituted a one-child norm in 1979, but the issue hit the headlines recently, when the media picked up the story of a late term abortion in the northwest Shaanxi province after the husband of the woman posted an image of the aborted fetus online. Further probing exposed the brutality inflicted on Chinese women by family planning authorities: one particular story that stood out was that of Ms. Pan on the New York Times: the 31-year old was 8 months pregnant, when she was grabbed from a grocery store, locked up and forced to sign a consent form for a late term abortion.
These revelations were obviously met with outrage, and China responded by firing the responsible authorities, and dispatching 10 teams of inspectors to 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions to prevent forced abortions. The country has also offered monetary compensations to several women.
But what really needs to change is China’s understanding of family planning. Like several other countries across Asia, China needs to recognize a woman’s autonomy over her body. Coercive family planning policies might make available a wide range of services, but they discriminate against women, and rob them of their rights to control their fertility. They do not offer women the right to choose, and therefore deprive them of the right to information as well. Moreover, not all these forced abortions are safe. Stories of botched abortions show that the officials are more concerned with national demographics than the lives of these individual women.
What we need in Asia are liberal laws that provide women with a wide range of family planning services, including safe abortions; and access to information on all these facilities. These women need to understand their rights, and responsibilities, and have to be educated to make informed decisions about their fertility.
Unfortunately, these forced abortions in China did not always draw the desired kind of criticism. As Lisa Hallgarten writes on the blog of Marge Berer, RHM Journal’s Editor, these stories gave anti-choice campaigners an excuse to canvas for the criminalization of abortions. “Stories of forced abortion, and other human rights abuses associated with the one-child policy, are being presented as the logical conclusion of all and any family planning policies.” Worse still, Chen Guangcheng, the civil rights activist who has been canvasing against these forced abortions has become the poster boy of anti-choice protests against Chinese’s family planning laws. But Guangcheng, while against forceful policies, is not against abortions per se.
Hopefully, Chinese authorities will ignore these voices, when they recognize the need to revise the country’s family planning policy, and formulate liberal policies that provide women with every essential family planning service, including safe abortions. (Read our blog on the need for all conventions on reproductive health to include safe abortions.)