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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

An underground railroad

A network of groups and individuals is working to combat China's one-child policy

Issue: "Praying for rain," Aug. 11, 2012

For more than a decade leading up to the Civil War, blacks in the South who found it impossible to endure slavery took the hard way out, making their way north to freedom along what became known as the Underground Railroad. They learned the lingo and the routes to freedom, "following the drinking gourd along the River Jordan to the Promised Land"-or, following the North Star along the Ohio River to Canada. It was not the mapped-out journey from safe house to safe house the storybooks portray. Fugitive slaves headed into the great unknown-living in swamps, trusting their lives to strangers, risking capture, punishment, and death-only because the known had become equally full of mortal danger.

Today something of a similar underground railroad has come alive in China, driven by the mortal danger of enduring more than 30 years of the nation's one-child policy. The controversial rule, at first meant to last 20-30 years in order to curb China's population growth, has entered its fourth decade-having "prevented," according to the communist government's own statistics, the birth of over 400 million babies.

Many of the millions result from forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and infanticide. Nearly one-third of Chinese women in their 20s have already had an abortion, and likely they will have more than one. Elaborate regulations exist to punish women who want more than one child, and to create incentives for those who inform on families attempting to do so. It's not surprising that China is the only country in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than it is for men-three times higher.

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But unbeknownst to many of us until recently, an underground network of aid for these women in some cases may be outrunning one-child policy enforcers-or at least throwing more drastic light on their practices. And it can involve outsiders like you or me making a sacrifice to help women who are determined to keep their babies.

Feng Jinmei is the latest well-publicized victim of the one-child regime, forced to abort a baby she'd carried for seven months because her family was unable to pay the 40,000 yuan ($6,300) fine the government imposed on her for an additional child.

Feng fought family-planning officers who forced her into a car while her husband was at work, but a photo of her aborted baby lying dead next to her went viral, sparking condemnation throughout China.

This summer the case of Cao Ruyi also caught global attention: She escaped officers who tried to force her to abort her baby and now faces a $25,000 fine-called "a social burden compensation fee"-she says she and her husband cannot pay.

Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and just as the "conductors" along the Underground Railroad saw that their "cargo" was safely shipped from "station" to "station," today inside and outside China are "conductors" offering real help to save babies. In some cases that's help to escape. For others, it's aid to pay fines to keep more than one child.

The fines for additional children vary from rural areas to China's large cities. In Shanghai a pastor and his wife face this month an outrageous fine-$30,000-to keep their second baby. Advocates are helping this couple raise the money, and still have $13,000 to go. (If you are interested in helping this couple or others like them, contact me.)

Several groups do this kind of work above ground, and accept U.S. help. One is ChinaAid, the Texas-based human-rights organization that helped Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng get to America in May. (Chen himself got into trouble for trying to expose forced abortions in China.)

Another is All Girls Allowed, a Boston-based group involved in fundraising to rescue mothers and their babies threatened with forced abortions. And Women's Rights Without Frontiers is an international coalition working to stop forced abortions in China. It also runs a Chinese-language website exposing the realities of the one-child policy. These, and many dedicated others, are steadfastly helping babies to be born in China who otherwise would die.

Email mbelz@worldmag.com

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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