CHINA—The smell of steamed rice and stir-fried beef waft into the simple warehouse converted into a church in northern China. Fans mounted on the walls breathe air into the warm room, as gracious hosts hand visitors cups of boiling water, the drink of choice no matter the weather. As two pastors—one American, one Chinese—finished teaching on the sanctity of life, women and men of all ages stood up, sobbing and praying for repentance: “Lord, forgive me for aborting my child; I didn’t know it was murder. Lord, forgive me for shedding innocent blood.”
For most in the room, this was the first time they had seen photos of fetal development, learned about what abortion entails, and studied what the Bible says about the sanctity of life. A middle-aged Chinese woman with cropped hair approached me with a nervous smile afterward. “Where do the [aborted babies] go?” she asked, eyes watering. “I’ve had it done before and was wondering if I’d ever see them again.” I mumble in broken Chinese that the babies go to heaven, telling her the story of King David’s child. “Oh, that’s so good to hear,” she said.
In China abortion is “as common as drinking water,” one woman told me, with the official tally at 13 million babies aborted each year, by far the highest in the world. For many, abortion is viewed as the preferred method of birth control, with ubiquitous ads on buses and billboards touting quick, cheap, and pain-free abortions. Few people, including Christians, are knowledgeable about life inside the womb or understand the abortion procedure, a fact attributed to the government’s desire to continue its population control policies. Yet it’s not just the one-child policy causing women to abort; more and more single women are also aborting as the younger generation’s lax view of sex clashes against traditional stigmas against having children out of wedlock.
In the past few years, Chinese Christians are starting to take a stand for life, both by teaching about abortion from the pulpit, and working with women to find oftentimes unconventional ways to protect life. Some originally hear the pro-life message from U.S.-based ministries, some through the internet or overseas teachings, while others are convicted through reading the Bible. From there, the message has spread to tens of thousands of churches around the country, and resulted in mothers holding giggling babies that otherwise wouldn’t be born, women saved from forced abortions, and churches growing stronger as they repent and help their own.
Yet still only about 1 percent of all the churches in China have heard what the Bible has to say about life, according to the pro-life group China Life Alliance (CLA). And with cultural, governmental, and practical roadblocks hindering their message, the Chinese pro-life movement still has a long way to go.
IT’S MIDMORNING, yet inside the dingy illegal medical clinic in Southwest China, light seems impenetrable. Next to a room lined with thin, musty cots and IV stands, a stout female doctor sits behind her desk, bragging to me about her experience performing abortions. She’s done abortions for 40 years now both at a hospital and at the clinic (where she makes much more money) and promises that it’s a very typical operation–one girl had eight abortions done, and she’s doing fine.
While China’s law forbids late-term abortions, she said she would do the abortion regardless of the delivery date, “even if [the baby] comes out crying.” An abortion at three months would cost merely 1,000 yuan ($160), and the patient could be in and out of the clinic in two hours. She then showed me where the operation is performed, a locked back room that reeked of chemicals and death. In one corner stood a rusting operating chair with stirrups, which the doctor quickly walked toward to toss out blood-stained tissues from her last operation, an 18-year-old who was five months pregnant. Tucked between a cot and table was an illegal ultrasound machine covered with a piece of cloth, which the abortionist offered to use to help determine the sex of the baby. Sex-selective abortions are illegal in China, as the preference for sons has skewed the country’s sex ratio.
Yet about a block away from the clinic stands a police station, deliberately oblivious to the illegal activity down the street. Mark Li*, an American missionary who founded CLA, said the police secretly appreciate these clinics because they lower the official number of abortions in the country. While the government counts 13 million abortions a year, the actual number including unreported abortions could be as high as 30 million.
In China sex education is not taught in school, as teachers are embarrassed to discuss it. Parents also don’t talk to their children about sex, so children learn from media, including sexually explicit Western movies, music, and TV shows. As a result, more than 70 percent of Chinese engage in premarital sex, a 30 percent increase from 20 years ago.
For unmarried girls who get pregnant, abortion often seems like the only option. Unwed mothers bring shame to the families, so parents pressure their daughters to abort. If a single woman keeps her baby, she’s without a support system and could lose her job, get kicked out of school, and have difficulty getting married in the future. Also, the child would be unable to get hukou, or household registration that allows people to go to school, travel, or get a job. Placing the child for adoption is also difficult, as the government has restricted private adoptions, leaving only a complicated and arduous legal adoption process. So for many, the optimal solution to the problem is to slip over to the hospital or illegal clinic, spend two hours and 1,000 yuan and return back to normal life.
Married couples often see abortion as their only choice as well under the one-child policy. While the law has become less strictly enforced in some areas—with exemptions for ethnic minorities and parents where one is a single child—couples who have a second child are often forced to pay a fine between three and 10 times the average after-tax income in the city where they live. For those who work at government-run workplaces, having a second child leads to job loss, as it sets a bad example for the rest of society. While the government officially bans forced abortions, the practice continues in rural areas where local officials don’t understand the law.
EVEN THE CHINESE CHURCH, which has been growing exponentially since China opened up in 1979, has kept silent about abortion. Peter Wang*, a former house church pastor who now spends his time training churches like the one mentioned above in northern China, said he’s met pastors who have had abortions themselves or given money to parishioners to help pay for their abortions. Some pastors, especially those in rural areas, have never been taught that abortion is wrong or why it’s wrong. Others keep quiet because they feel that the topic is too sensitive and don’t want another excuse for the government to persecute their church.
But lately the tide is turning, as more Christians see the need for a Chinese pro-life movement. Li started CLA in 2010 to create a decentralized network of churches and ministries all with the goal to share the pro-life message and help women keep their babies. By linking resources from the experienced American pro-life movement to the leaders of the Chinese church, CLA was able to equip local believers quickly to start their own ministries. The group has launched a network of safe houses for pregnant women, abortion rescue teams, a Christian legal aid ministry, a Chinese resource website, and a pregnancy help center. Li said that so far about 20,000 churches have heard of the pro-life message, and each church that hears the message goes on to save two to five babies a year.
Pro-life solutions offered to mothers need to be altered to deal with Chinese culture. So in CLA, the on-the-ground work is being done and funded by locals, like Sarah Huang*, a cheerful house church pastor in her 30s with quirky expressions like “It’s so hot I could spit blood.” After almost aborting her son in 2012, she saw the importance of protecting life and started working for CLA. Since then she’s started her own one-woman ministry that has saved 50 to 60 babies.
In the afternoon we spent together, Huang’s two cell phones kept ringing as mothers needed her help: “What do I do about my second baby?” “I’m pregnant and I don’t have money to take care of this child.” “The officials are forcing me to have an abortion, can you help?” Most calls deal with one-child policy problems, and Huang assertively douses the fires by challenging churches to help families pay the fine, find safe houses to keep the pregnant woman away from the pressures of relatives, or threaten to report family-planning officials who continue to practice forced abortion. For those who still can’t pay the exorbitant fines, families can have the baby and then buy hukou for their child in the black market for a fraction of the price.
Huang doesn’t seem to have a free minute, as she’s off teaching sex ed in rural villages one week, then visiting abortion clinics and hospitals to talk young women out of having abortions the next. Every time at least one or two girls end up taking her phone number and giving her a call, and she’s even built a relationship with the aforementioned abortionist.
In spite of the lives saved, Huang finds it difficult to get support from the local church: Churches that can’t even afford to pay their pastors don’t have money to support other causes. CLA faces other trials as well: Earlier this year government officials arrested several workers connected to CLA and told them the organization was under investigation. Police officers stymied a planned national pro-life conference for church leaders in March, yet pastors still met at a different location to pray and repent for abortions in the church.
JIM PETERS*, A VETERAN AMERICAN PRO-LIFE ACTIVIST, has also turned his focus from the United States to China, where he saw firsthand in 2010 how desperately the church needed to hear what the Bible says about abortion. With his pastoral background, he points to passages such as Luke 1—where John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s and the just-conceived Jesus’ arrival—to show what the Bible says about when life begins. Peters, who travels back and forth between China and the United States, hired Wang to work full-time at the ministry training church leaders all over the country.
Even if pastors are at first hesitant to hear the message, once Wang starts preaching, “their eyes get bigger, and if I speak for an hour, they’ll listen. If I talk for four hours, they’ll listen.” He’s even been able to teach at state-recognized Three Self churches to packed audiences of 700-800 people.
It’s often after the teaching that the most challenging work begins. Ruth Wu*, a bubbly young woman, remembers feeling convicted when Wang came to preach about abortion at a church she was visiting. A few days later, she found out she was pregnant with the child of her ex-boyfriend.
“In my heart my thought was to obey God, but realistically it seemed like I couldn’t [keep the baby], because my parents would not understand or support it.” So she went to the hospital for an abortion three times, but each time she ended up walking out. She called Wang asking for help, and through his church he found her a job and a place to stay. Throughout her pregnancy—which she kept secret from her family—church members brought her food and visited her, staying by her side in the delivery room. Once the baby girl was born, an older couple in the church privately took her in.
Months later, Wu married David, her Bible study leader, and the two of them have joined the U.S.-based nonprofit All Girls Allowed in hopes of helping other young women in similar situations. AGA, founded by former Tiananmen student leader Chai Ling, works in China giving financial assistance to women at risk of aborting their babies, which opens up opportunities to share the gospel with these families.
At another church where Wang shared the message, members mentioned to him that a nearby hospital had a Christian director and several Christian nurses—why don’t they try to open a pregnancy center in the hospital? The director agreed, and required every woman coming in for an abortion to first pass through the pink-and-yellow room and speak with a volunteer counselor. At first about 20 volunteers showed up for the PHC training from Peters and other American pro-life activists, but the number dropped down to 10 when the center opened in May 2013.
In the year that the center has been open, five babies have been saved, said volunteer Mary Chen*, as she showed me iPhone photos of the chubby-cheeked babies bundled up in blankets. Most are from single mothers who are now married to their boyfriends. But difficulties started to arise in March when the hospital placed a doctor in charge of the center who would not let the counselors meet with the patients. The volunteers were relegated to making follow-up calls to women who have just had their abortions.
But the bigger problem is that even if the counselors could meet with patients, there wouldn’t be enough people to staff the center. The number of volunteers has dwindled to three due to busy work schedules and disagreements between Three Self and house churches, and Chen wonders if the center could find a way to hire paid staff. She said she knows the opportunity to have a life-saving center in the hospital is God-ordained, and can only pray for solutions to their problems.
THROUGHOUT THE SPRAWLING sprawling house church networks, leaders are rising up independent of any overseas ministries. In Chengdu, Jonny Fan, a 27-year-old at the 500-member Early Rain Reformed Church, saw images of abortion on a blog in 2012 and felt convicted about the high abortion rates in the country. So for the past three years, he and his fellow church members have passed out brochures urging mothers not to abort on June 1, which is Children’s Day. Using his background in marketing, Fan created polished pamphlets explaining the scope of abortion in China, the hope found in the gospel, and contact information for his church. Last year, he expanded his campaign to include bus ads, and authorities arrested him and a few others for printing unapproved material. This year, Fan printed 50,000 fliers for his church to pass out, and police officers beat one church member for passing out the fliers.
At Early Rain, the focus on protecting life is noticeable in the number of families sitting in the service with two kids. Fan said that most of the second children don’t have hukou, and they aren’t sure yet what they will do in the future. Besides buying hukou, families can also wait until the national census, when officials will sometimes register children for free to make their own job easier. One upside is that Early Rain has its own private Christian school and seminary, so the lack of hukou wouldn’t stop them from getting an education.
During the rest of the year, Fan leads a pro-life small group that focuses on educating church members about abortion and has expanded into adoption care. Last year, one church member passing out fliers outside a hospital convinced a young woman to keep her baby. Fan connected her with a family who was willing to adopt the child privately, and realized this would be the next big need in his ministry.
His June 1 campaign has inspired others to use the day to talk about abortion: This year Peters and Wang started a month-long campaign ending June 1 to train church leaders to spread the word about abortion within their church networks. About 8,200 pastors ended up preaching about abortion in their churches, according to Wang. Fan said that while others have approached him asking about pro-life work, he’s not an expert, he’s just a Christian acting on his convictions.
“I do this because I see China’s rate of abortion is growing too fast; it’s frightening,” Fan said. “This is what I believe: We cannot murder. But Chinese people have sinned in this way. I don’t want to let the next generation live in an environment like this.”