The West’s Deafening Silence on China’s Forced Abortions

The West’s Deafening Silence on China’s Forced Abortions January 23, 2013

I cannot think of any political figure who has stood more staunchly and more effectively for the rights of the unborn than Rick Santorum. In the guest post below, Senator Santorum speaks to a global policy issue of great importance. Whether people are too intimidated by the Chinese government, whether they value their economic cooperation over the interests of justice for the Chinese people, or whether they are too afraid to speak up against any kind of abortion whatsoever, the silence of the world community in the face of China’s policies of forced abortion and sterilization is shameful. Senator Santorum is absolutely right to speak up here — and also right that we should be able to reach across the aisle and call together for change on this of all issues.


The West’s Deafening Silence on China’s Forced Abortions

By Rick Santorum

Yesterday marked the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, as the Supreme Court handed down their infamous decision in 1973. What fewer Americans know is that the Chinese government, six years later in 1979, not only embraced elective abortions but made forced abortion a matter of policy for millions of Chinese families, especially the poorest ones.

While the pro-life and pro-choice movements disagree on many issues, here is one issue where we should be able to join hands and join forces. Despite the furor created on the internet this past summer by a picture of Feng Jianmei — whose blood-covered seven-month-old daughter appeared in the photo beside her on a hospital bed — there was relatively little outrage directed at the Chinese government from foreign governments or NGOs that advocate for women’s rights. Nor do the names of Pan Chunyan, whom officials abducted from a grocery store and subjected to an abortion at 8 months, or Zhang Wenfang, who was involuntarily sterilized after her 9-month-old baby was aborted, appear in the news outside of a handful of pro-life and faith-based websites.

The NGO All Girls Allowed estimates that ten percent of abortions in China are coerced. According to its own statistics, the Chinese government performed 13 million abortions in 2008 and 400 million abortions since the policy was inaugurated in 1979. That means that the government may force abortions on 1.3 million women annually, and that the total number of forced abortions could be at least 40 million. Other human rights abuses (1,484 cases of political and religious prisoners, 4,500 executions, 40,000 committed to psychiatric hospitals, 80,000 evictions) affect far fewer people and yet they’re reported much more frequently.

The Chinese government prides itself on liberating women from backwards, feudal traditions and empowering them to become Politburo members, billionaires and astronauts. But China is the only country in the world where more women than men — 40 percent more, in fact — take their own lives. “The Global Burden of Disease study conducted by the World Bank, World Health Organization and Harvard University, identifies China with 56.6% of all female suicides worldwide, an astonishing figure considering that only 21% of the world’s female population lives in China.” No one has been able to research the link between forcible abortions and sterilizations and the high rate of female suicides, but the relationship between violence, depression and suicide among women is well documented.

Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist, was outraged enough by this policy to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of 130,000 women in his county who were forcibly aborted or sterilized. His actions landed him in jail, and then under house arrest, for a total of 7 years. Chen’s activism has been lauded by the international human rights community. Mo Yan, China’s first Nobel laureate in literature, also documented the bitter reality of the coercive enforcement of the one-child policy in his novels. But the same activists and politicians who laud Chen and celebrate Mo pay much less attention to the issue that concerns them. When pressed, Planned Parenthood and Amnesty International will oppose forced abortions and sterilizations, but more often than not they are simply silent. Even worse is when foreign politicians, like Vice President Joe Biden, tell Chinese officials that they will not “second-guess” their policy.

Forced abortion and sterilization are gross violations of a woman’s physical integrity. They’re a form of torture that should outrage anyone who cares about justice for women — but they’re greeted with deafening silence because of the battles over elective abortions in the West. The politics of abortion in the West makes normally outspoken women’s advocates reticent. The U.N. women’s agency prominently displays its work in China against domestic violence, but says nothing of the threat that forced abortion and sterilization pose to the health and well-being of a far larger number of Chinese women.  

The Executive Director of U.N. Women, Michelle Bachelet, has spoken of the need for access to abortions, but made no mention of coercive abortion. Amnesty International’s annual report on human rights violations in China covers freedom of expression, human rights defenders, disappearances, evictions, death penalty, freedom of religion and Tibet and Xinjiang — but makes no mention of forced abortions and sterilizations. Many women’s advocates have demanded an explanation from the Irish government over the death of Savita Halappanavar, who suffered a miscarriage and was denied an abortion. Yet far fewer demand that the Chinese government bring their domestic law in line with international legal protections of the right to “found a family” in the Universal Declaration Human Rights or the requirement that states ensure victims of torture “redress” and the “right to fair and adequate compensation” as required in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Feng Jianmei’s case became notorious because someone took a picture that angered Chinese citizens and created a public relations problem for the government. For most women, however, there’s no one standing by to document that horrible moment when the government violates their bodies and destroys their children. These women and their stories should not be forgotten because of our angst over abortion in the West.  

No one can be pro-woman but neutral on forced abortions. Even those who wish to protect elective abortions should wish to prevent forced abortions. The sheer violence and pain they inflict upon women should be enough to bring all of us to work together for change. We who have the freedom to speak out should use that power for Feng Jianmei and the millions of women like her.


Rick Santorum, a former representative and senator from Pennsylvania, ran as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He is the founder of Patriot Voices, an organization to mobilize one million conservatives committed to promoting faith, family, freedom, and opportunity. I’m grateful to the Santorum team for allowing me to publish this original piece as a guest post at Philosophical Fragments. 

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  • That is an incredibly powerful piece.

  • Doug

    “No one can be pro-woman but neutral on forced abortions. Even those who wish to protect elective abortions should wish to prevent forced abortions.”

    Wow, something I can agree with Senator Santorum on. Thanks.

  • Thanks for posting this. What can we then do? How can people move on this?

    • Publicity really moved things last year when Feng Jianmei’s forced abortion came to light—it was a huge embarrassment for China. Chinese citizens voiced outrage (despite censors) on social media, and the European Parliament issued a public condemnation of forced abortion in China. The more bad P.R. the One-Child Policy gets, the more incentive there is for the leadership to change it. So letting people know about it (writing blog posts, op-eds, and letters, calling legislators, and building petitions, etc.) is a great step.

      Definitely keep praying for women who are at risk! The Chinese central government actually doesn’t have a whole lot of direct control over the actions of many local family planning officials, so they turn a blind eye to strict enforcers as long as those enforcers are loyal to the Party. It basically means that pregnant mothers are at the mercy of whoever heads the family planning office in their area.

    • bill bannon

      The Chinese are never changed by direct confrontation…to do so is for them to lose face. The currency issue should have taught us that. You can help greatly by giving to China Little Flower who takes infants who in some cases are not wanted because they are dying or deformed. Begun by Catholics, religion however seems to be silently a factor since I correspond with a nun there for years. Even her emails at most hint of the religious aspect. I think they are under policy to say little in that regard. Write to them to ask more:

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Thanks for the recommendation, Bill!

  • Don’t buy things made in China.

  • Kevin McKee

    I think the article is excellent, but I am still forced to ask Senator Santorum how given his views of the actions of the Chinese government, how he could except funding from businesses sources who profit from their relationship with China, and in fact encourage Christians to support political candidates, in particular the former candidate of the Republican party, who had extensive and long term financial agreements that support the government of China, and who have profited immensely from their work with the government of China. This is the height of hypocrisy.

    • cowalker

      Oops. The emperor’s clothes are looking a tad diaphanous. Another thing that must not be pointed out is that U.S. feminists would have more resources to bring to bear against forced abortion if they didn’t continually have to pour time, money and influence into the struggle to keep elective abortion available to American women.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Just about any businessman of Romney’s stature — and in fact, almost any investor in general — is going to deal with Chinese companies. There are many ways of engaging a national government apart from divesting in the companies that work in that nation. In a globalized world where half the items we give our children are made in China, I suspect there are better ways, and more potent ones as well.

      As for coworker, that’s a pretty lame excuse. The next time someone tells me that evangelicals should spend more time helping the poor, I’m going to say, “We’d have much more time to help the poor if we weren’t forced to defend the unborn all the time!” Let’s see how that flies, shall we?

  • Thanks so much for bringing more light to this injustice—it’s amazing how “invisible” the brutal enforcement of the One-Child Policy has been outside of China. (Yet it’s anything but invisible to the women our field workers serve.) Please keep praying since Chinese government leaders are making decisions right now about making some adjustments to the policy. We’ll hope for big changes, but remember that any coercive family planning policy will still lead to abortions and prolong China’s gendercide of baby girls.

    One note: the piece says that All Girls Allowed believes 10% of abortions in China are forced/coerced – I’m not sure where that number came from and it’s not in our documented research. It would probably be impossible to know how many of China’s roughly 13 million abortions every year are coerced or forced because these cases are often hidden from view. Regardless, any forced abortion is one too many…so again, THANK YOU for pointing your readers to this problem.

    Kat Lewis
    Director of Communications, All Girls Allowed

  • Wladyslaw

    Pro-abortion people in the United States do not favor laws prohibiting sex selection abortions because they don’t want to limit the woman making her decision about her body. Forced sex selection abortions hit too close to home, and they do not deal with it.