By now we’re all too familiar with the horrifying images from China of a young mother, Jianmei, forced into an abortion. The images of Jianmei are certainly a call for reform in China. But to me, the passionate and furious response to them in the United States also illustrates people’s subconscious respect for choice and reproductive rights: even if they don’t realize it.
Jianmei was only twenty-two years old and seven months pregnant with her second child when she was forced to have an abortion. Based on China’s “one child” policy implemented in the late 1970s, all individuals in China are restricted to having one child or paying a fine to have multiple. The fine is approximately $6,000. Family planning officials demanded that Jianmei pay the fine, the equivalent of four years of her husband’s pay as a miner, which she did not have.
On June 2, family planning officials beat and dragged Jianmei to the hospital where her fetus was forcibly aborted. It was placed next to her on the bed leading to the infamous photographs her sister bravely posted online.
When people see the images from the hospital, their first reaction is often disgust and horror followed quickly by anger. That was my reaction at least. It’s hard to even comprehend how people could to do such a thing, much less analyze it. We don’t want to think about it, just condemn it. But it’s important, though difficult, to address what we find just so disturbing and distorted about the images if we are to prevent similar situations and violations of rights from occurring in the United States.
On one hand, the images show an aborted fetus, certainly a disturbing image. But is that it? Is the reason these images spark so much outrage and such intense passionate condemnation is that people see that fetus as equal to a person? I think not. Anti-choice and anti-abortion advocates constantly shove images of aborted fetuses in our faces without eliciting a similar response. The overall reaction to the images would certainly have changed if Jianmei wanted and initiated the abortion. This leads to the conclusion that it’s not the aborted fetus that sparks our deep flood of outrage at seeing the images. Rather it’s the violation of Jianmei’s choice.
If people paused and thoroughly analyzed what part of the whole despicable mess bothers them the most, I believe it would be that Jianmei was beaten into submission and forced to abort her fetus. Her own desires were stripped from her violently. She had no autonomy. She had no control. She had no choice.
Is this image in China so different from an image of a pregnant woman forced to carry her fetus to term against her will, a woman forced to become a mother without having a choice in the matter? Would that not be equally horrifying?
I cannot imagine the United States ever forcing women to undergo an abortion. But equally disturbing in my mind is the thought that women here may have the same complete lack of choice and control as in China- just in reverse. Instead of forced to have an abortion, women in the United States will be forced to carry their fetuses to term without access to abortion or forced to carry non-viable fetuses until they begin labor naturally.
In some states, this has already occurred. Take the 2011 case of Danielle Deaver in Nebraska. Deaver was 22 weeks pregnant when her water broke and doctors told her the fetus would never survive outside the womb. After investigating every medical option, Deaver and her husband asked that the non-viable pregnancy be terminated. However, a Nebraska law barring late-term abortions (after 20 weeks) prohibited doctors from inducing labor in Deaver and Deaver was forced to wait ten days before giving birth to a baby that died in her arms.
At the heart of it, forcing pregnant women to carry a fetus to term or failing to induce labor for a non-viable fetus is still the same complete violation of personal autonomy of reproductive health that occurred in China. When you fight for choice, you fight for the rights of all women to decide to become parents or not. Reproductive health should be beyond government control and the control of others- it should be subject only to the personal choices of women and families with consultation from their medical providers.
If we could pause as a country and analyze what we find most disturbing about the images from China, it would teach us an immense amount about our own values. It would show us that, despite polls and divisive language, the right to choice is still precious in this country. Sometimes it just takes someone’s choice to be violated for us to realize it.