By CCHH bloggers, on 23 February 2017
Authors: Heather Au Yeung So Hung 欧阳素红 and Li Yilin 李一琳
Is abortion a serious problem in China?
This question was addressed by Cong Yali 丛亚丽, Professor of Medical Ethics and Deputy Director of the Institute of Medical Humanities, PKU, in her presentation and seminar on ‘Abortion: A Historical Reflection’ on 9 February 2017. Organised by UCL’s China Centre for Health and Humanity, this event was introduced by Dr Vivienne Lo.
The evening began with a discussion of the Hong Kong movie Dumplings (Jiaozi 饺子) by Fruit Chan 陈果 – a black comedy depicting a woman who eats aborted foetuses to stay young and beautiful – and the social and ethical issues that it raises.
Prof. Cong’s presentation fell into four parts: a 2003 study on abortion; ideas about the life and personhood of the foetus; historical analysis; and the One-Child Policy and Two-Child Policy: implications for the future.
She began by presenting some facts and figures for abortion at Shengjing 盛京 hospital in north-east China, where the number of abortions rose from 354 to 4597 between 2003 and 2013, and the number of women under 20 undergoing abortions rose from 60 in 2003 to 209 in 2013. She went on to discuss a study on ‘Modern Chinese Views on Life’ carried out at Peking University in 2003. Interviews were conducted with 18 people, who were divided into three groups by education level. Two of the groups included women who had undergone abortions. The results of the interviews showed that, first, the concepts of ‘life’ and ‘human being’ were not differentiated by the interviewees, but they rejected the idea that abortion could be equated with murder; second, most of the interviewees regarded abortion as a necessary consequence of the One-Child Policy, and were not therefore motivated to think deeply about the ethical implications; last, older and less well-educated interviewees were more inclined to object to abortion.
Prof. Cong said that the dilemma concerns whether abortion is killing, in any sense: the killing of the foetus as a ‘life’, whether or not it is considered to be a ‘person’. She used historical analysis to explain general views of the value of the foetus. In China, life has traditionally been considered to begin at birth, as is illustrated, for example, by the Xunzi, ‘Lilun pian’ 荀子·礼论篇 (Ritual Principles). In other words, the foetus is not treated as ‘human’ in ancient Chinese texts.
Examining the attitudes of the ancients towards the foetus from literary texts
Prof. Cong cited a famous passage in Hanshu 汉书, juan 97, which tells of Empress Zhao Feiyan 赵飞燕 and her sister Zhao Hede 赵合德, consorts of Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty 汉成帝, who forced their rivals to have abortions to safeguard their own status.
The foetus itself did not have an independent role in society, but depended on its potential social relations. It was usually considered as a means rather than an end in itself.
The moral status of the foetus itself did not generally feature as a fundamental factor in considerations on abortion. While ordinary people often opted for abortion because of poverty, their rulers were inclined to protect the foetus and punish abortionists for social and political purposes (to increase the population and levy taxes, etc.).
Furthermore, from literary texts, it can be seen that the foetus was regarded as both a political victim and a political tool in Palace struggles, and was protected as a potential clansman who could perpetuate the clan. Whether the foetus itself was a living being or not was irrelevant; what mattered was its agency.
The attitudes of the ancients towards the foetus do not point directly to the foetus itself, but to variations in social relations after it is born.
This reminds us that, besides reflecting on the right or wrongs of abortion, we should be sensitive to the reasons and logic of the actors involved.
According to the Mencius, the worst of the three ingratitudes towards one’s parents was not to have a child (‘不孝有三, 无孝为大’). To perpetuate the clan and its bloodline was to fulfil the historical mission and responsibilities that were inherited and passed on by male family members.
Related to this is the phenomenon of gender selection. The mission of perpetuating the clan was accomplished by giving birth to a boy, while a married daughter was ‘spilt water’, and girls were not included in the family tree of their birth family. Moreover, in peasant communities, boys took on the key role in agricultural labour, so this phenomenon was also a response to the concrete pressures of life in rural areas.
Abortion and modern family structure
With the decline of traditional culture and revolutionary changes in family structure, the patriarchal clan system has largely disintegrated. Today, family structure is mainly centred on the nuclear family. One consequence of this is that married women now have far more autonomy, which includes the decision to have an abortion.
Birth control policies
Prof. Cong concluded by explaining the relationship between abortion and the One-Child birth-control policy introduced in the 1980s, pointing out the issues of skewed sex ratios, from the traditional preference for male offspring to a recent trend, among urban couples, to prefer daughters. The One-Child Policy was eased in 2013, and replaced in October 2015 by the current Two-Child Policy. New research is now called for, Prof. Cong said, in order to understand how and to what extent this policy change will affect abortion.
Heather Au Yeung So Hung 欧阳素红 and Li Yilin 李一琳 are postgraduate students on the MA course in Chinese Health and Humanity (2016–17).