QIAN’AN, China — Yang Zhongchen, a small-town businessman, wined and dined three government officials for permission to become a father.
But the Peking duck and liquor weren’t enough. One night, a couple of weeks before her date for giving birth, Yang’s wife was dragged from her bed in a north China town and taken to a clinic, where, she says, her baby was killed by injection while still inside her.
“Several people held me down, they ripped my clothes aside and the doctor pushed a large syringe into my stomach,” says Jin Yani, a shy, petite woman with a long ponytail. “It was very painful. ... It was all very rough.”
Some 30 years after China decreed a general limit of one child per family, resentment still brews over the state’s regular and sometimes brutal intrusion into intimate family matters. Not only are many second pregnancies aborted, but even to have one’s first child requires a license.
Seven years after the dead baby was pulled from her body with forceps, Jin remains traumatized and, the couple and a doctor say, unable to bear children. Yang and Jin have made the rounds of government offices pleading for restitution — to no avail.
This year, they took the unusual step of suing the family planning agency in court. The judges ruled against them, saying Yang and Jin conceived out of wedlock. Local family planning officials said Jin consented to the abortion. The couple’s appeal to a higher court is pending.
The one-child policy applies to most families in this nation of 1.3 billion people, and communist officials, often under pressure to meet birth quotas set by the government, can be coldly intolerant of violators.
But in the new China, economically powerful and more open to outside influences, ordinary citizens such as Yang and Jin increasingly are speaking out. Aiding them are social campaigners and lawyers who have documented cases of forced abortions in the seventh, eighth or ninth month.
Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer, prepared a lawsuit cataloguing 20 cases of forced abortions and sterilizations in rural parts of Shandong province in 2005, allegedly carried out because local officials had failed to reach population control targets.
Chen, who is blind, is serving a prison sentence of three years and four months which his supporters say was meted out in retaliation for his activism.
Many countries ban abortion after 12 or sometimes 24 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother’s life is at risk. While China outlaws forced abortions, its laws do not expressly prohibit or even define late-term termination.
Parenting depends on a permit
Jin, an 18-year-old high school dropout from a broken home, met 30-year-old Yang, a building materials supplier, in September 1998. They moved in together. A year and a half later, in January or February 2000, they discovered Jin was pregnant but couldn’t get married right away because she had not reached 20, the marriage age.
After her birthday in April, Jin bought porcelain cups for the wedding and posed for studio photos. On May 5, they were married. Now all that was missing was the piece of paper allowing them to have a child. So about a month before Jin’s due date, her husband Yang set out to curry favor with Di Wenjun, head of the neighborhood family planning office in Anshan, the couple’s home town about 190 miles east of Beijing.
He faced a fine of $660 to $1,330 for not having gotten a family planning permit in advance, so he treated Di to the Peking duck lunch on Aug. 15, 2000, hoping to escape with a lower fine since this was his first child.
The next day he paid for another meal with Di and the village’s Communist Party secretary and accountant.
He said the mood was cordial and that the officials toasted him for finding a young wife and starting a family.
“They told me ‘We’ll talk to our superiors. We’ll do our best. Wait for our news.’ So I was put at ease,” Yang said.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 7, when Yang was away opening a new building supplies store, Jin was taken from her mother-in-law’s home and forced into having the abortion.
Why had the officials failed to make good on their assurances? One of Yang’s two lawyers, Wang Chen, says he believes it was because no bribe was paid.
“Dinner is not enough,” Wang said. “Nothing gets done without a bribe. This is the situation in China. Yang was too naive.”
Di, who has since been promoted to head of family planning for all of Anshan township, could not be reached. Officials who answered his office phone refused to take a message and gave a cell phone number for him that was out of service.
‘Very inappropriate things’
Zhai Zhenwu, a sociology professor at the People’s University Institute of Demographic Studies in Beijing, said that while forced, late-term abortions do still occur sporadically, they have fallen sharply.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he said, some family planning officials “were really radical and would do very inappropriate things like take your house, levy huge fines, force you into procedures.”
Things have improved since a propaganda campaign in 1993 to make enforcement more humane and the enactment of the family planning law in 2001, he said. Controls have been relaxed, allowing couples in many rural areas to have two children under certain conditions.
Still, Radio Free Asia reported this year that dozens of women in Baise, a small city in the southern province of Guangxi, were forced to have abortions because local officials failed to meet their population targets.
In the province’s Bobai county, thousands of farmers rioted in May after family planners levied huge fines against people with too many children. Those who didn’t pay were told their homes would be demolished and their belongings seized.
Couple files suit
Yang and Jin are suing the Family Planning Bureau in their county of Changli for $38,000 in medical expenses and $130,000 for psychological distress.
But it’s not about the money, said Yang, a fast-talking chain-smoker. No longer able to afford to run his business, he now works as a day laborer in Qian’an, an iron mining town east of Beijing.
“What I want is my child and I want the court to acknowledge our suffering,” he said.
A family planning official in Changli justified Jin’s abortion on the grounds she lacked a birth permit. The woman, who would only give her surname, Fu, said no one in the clinic was punished for performing the procedure.
The National Population and Family Planning Commission, the agency overseeing the one-child policy, says it is looking into Jin and Yang’s case. Meanwhile, the evidence appears contradictory.
Jin’s medical records include a doctor’s certificate from 2001, the year after the abortion, confirming she could not have children. Doctors in Changli county say they examined her in 2001 and 2002 and found nothing wrong with her.
The court ruling says Jin agreed to have the operation. Jin says the signature on the consent form is not hers but that of Di, the official her husband courted.
Speaking out for the baby
Sun Maohang, another of the Yangs’ lawyers, doubts the court will rule for the couple lest it encourage further lawsuits. But he hopes the case will stir debate and lead to clearer guidelines on abortion.
As she waits for the next round in court, Jin says she is too weak to work and has been celibate for years because sex is too painful.
Her husband prods her to tell her story, but during an interview she sits silent for a long time and finally says she doesn’t want to talk about the past because it’s too sad.
Then she quietly insists the lawsuit is something she has to do for Yang Ying, the baby girl she carried but never got to see or hold.
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