Wu Yongyuan wants his government to pay up. Chinese officials owe his family compensation, he says, for forcing his wife to submit to an abortion while she was seven months pregnant, subsequently ruining her mental health. After the traumatic abortion in 2011, she became violent and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The government, so far, has rebuffed Wu’s request and refused to hold anyone accountable, even though late-term abortions are supposed to be illegal in China. On Monday, a police van hauled away Wu and his wife, Gong Qifeng, who was wearing pink pajamas when she was abruptly ejected from the couple’s rented home. An AP reporter witnessed the scene and captured it on video.
Wu and Gong are from Lianyuan, in China’s southern Hunan province. They have one son. When Gong became pregnant with a second child, Wu was unconcerned because other families in his village also had two or three children. But one day his wife disappeared. He later learned authorities had escorted her to a hospital to have an abortion.
Gong, 25, remembers begging for mercy as people at the hospital pinned her head, arms, knees, and ankles to a bed. Then someone plunged a syringe of labor-inducing drugs into her stomach. “It was the pain of my lifetime, worse than the pain of delivering a child,” she said. “You cannot describe it. And it has become a mental pain. I feel like a walking corpse.” She gave birth to a stillborn boy after 35 excruciating hours.
After the abortion in November 2011, Gong became a different person, her husband says. She would easily burst into tears, avoided contact with others, and even punched at him and their son. A doctor diagnosed her with schizophrenia in May 2013.
Wu believes the forced abortion triggered his wife’s mental illness. Some Chinese media have rallied to his defense. “A mother who was forced to have an abortion has lost her sanity, and the local government and officials are as indifferent as ever. When will they be capable of realizing the crimes that they themselves are implicated in?” wrote The Beijing News last year.
Wu has reportedly rejected subsidies sometimes paid to forced abortion victims, and demanded higher compensation for his wife’s condition. After he presented his case to local officials, they produced a report claiming her schizophrenia might have physiological causes. In December, Wu brought his wife to Beijing to appeal to higher officials.
“We demand those involved in the case be punished, and we want an open apology and justice,” he wrote in a petition. “And we demand compensation for the losses inflicted upon us physically and mentally.”
It’s unclear if the couple will meet with success. On Monday afternoon, their Beijing landlord chased them out of a tiny rental room and into the streets. A police van soon carried them away. Wu texted a reporter a few hours later: “We probably will be sent home. … The party chief of our township called us, asking us to go home for negotiations.”
Chinese law since 2001 has stated officials must “enforce the law in a civil manner, and they may not infringe upon legitimate rights and interests of citizens.” This should render forced abortion illegal, but the practice continues. Local officials are pressured to meet birth quotas in line with China’s one-child policy, established around 1980 to keep population growth in check. Most urban couples are limited to one child, and rural families are limited to two if the first-born is a girl.
When couples break the rules by becoming pregnant, local officials levy hefty fines—or worse.
In 2012, a photo spread throughout the internet showing a 27-year-old Chinese woman lying beside a dead 7-month-old fetus. Officials had forced the woman, Feng Jaimei, to undergo an abortion after she and her husband were unable to pay a 40,000 yuan ($6,280) fine for a second child. The image elicited outrage on the Chinese blogosphere.
In response to an international outcry, high-level authorities fired or reprimanded several officials in Feng’s township, and the local government paid her family more than 70,000 yuan ($11,400). No one was criminally prosecuted, however, and the payout was called assistance, not compensation.
Reggie Littlejohn, the president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, a group that raises awareness of China’s forced abortions, told me Chinese women victimized by the practice are typically not compensated. Gong’s experience and schizophrenia diagnosis, she said, “graphically demonstrate the untold mental and emotional violence that forced abortion unleashes against women.”
Littlejohn pointed to the high suicide rate among women in rural China. The U.S. State Department’s 2012 report on human rights practices in China notes the number of female suicides there has risen to 590 per day, up from 500 per day in 2009.
A reliable tally of forced abortions is impossible because it appears victims rarely speak out. Many are unfamiliar with laws ostensibly intended to protect their rights, and others may be silenced by local officials with threats or money. “They won’t say anything unless they cannot endure the pains anymore and must seek assistance,” said Yang Zhizhu, a Beijing professor and advocate for birthing rights.
China announced it would loosen its family-planning policy in November, but the change was more of a tweak, allowing couples to bear a second child in cases when one parent is an only child. That would only apply to about 10 million couples in a nation of 1.35 billion: Gong and Wu, it turns out, are still not eligible.
Liang Zhongtang, a demographer at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the Chinese family planning system has not ultimately changed. “It still forbids you from having more children than permitted by the government, so the game—and forced later-term abortions—are unavoidable if you want to have children the government does not allow.”
“Even those families who can now have a second child will need government permission to get pregnant,” added Littlejohn. “I fully expect that we will continue to see forced abortions and sterilizations of Chinese women in 2014 and beyond.”