I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom, edited by Shelly Oria, is a multigenre anthology with a focus on the crisis of reproductive rights in the United States. The book’s international supplement features sixteen additional works of fiction, nonfiction, and art by contributors from around the globe. Order the book, and receive the supplement, I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World, free as an e-book. Editor and author Shelly Oria will be touring through the summer of 2022, joined by contributors to the book as well as many other writers and artists.
The Wombs of China
by Sheng Keyi
Translated from Chinese by Jane Weizhan Pan
An unmarried, impoverished nineteen-year-old relative of mine became pregnant, landing her whole family in a dire predicament. China’s family-planning policy at the time forbade births out of wedlock. Huge sums would be expropriated in the name of child-support payments, yet the child could not be recorded in the family’s household registry. The girl had no choice but to terminate the seven-month pregnancy.
As I accompanied my relative to the hospital for the abortion, I learned that abortions are stringently controlled and that late-term abortions entail a world of challenges. My relative had to fill out forms explaining the reason for the abortion, then go to the village committee, the township police station, and the street committee to have them affix their seals. Only with this documentation would the hospital undertake the operation. This process was humiliating, an exposure of her private life.
Then—overnight—the policy changed, and a two-child policy under which there were no fines for illegitimate births was launched. While the policy changes were being sorted out prior to their promulgation, my relatives lamented their bad luck on just missing out on a “good policy.”
This reminded me of a joke: someone breaks your leg, then gives you crutches. You are grateful for the crutches.
All my female relatives in my home village bear the scars of sterilization on their bellies. An old woman in the village died with a steel ring planted deep inside her womb as a weighty marker of an era.
In my workplace a couple had an unauthorized son and—eight years later, during an internal political battle—was exposed. Both the man and his wife were fired, and the man hanged himself.
Unfortunately, as a woman born with a Chinese womb, I, too, have painful experiences. Every single Chinese womb has experienced fear and pain over the decades since the family-planning policy was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982. In 2013, a spokesperson for the National Health and Family Planning Commission revealed that in the more than four decades of family planning, 400 million births were avoided. 1
Officials spoke of this bloodstained record triumphantly, never mentioning the uncountable inhumane acts the implementation of the policy entailed. But people remember the women at the cusp of childbirth dragged off to undergo induced labor; the women who died on the operating tables during sterilization procedures; the unauthorized children who, unlike other children, were denied an education; the parents who were politically stigmatized for contravening the policy.
One of my first jobs, years before this, was as a propagandist for a family-planning service center (also known as a women and children’s hospital) in Shenzhen. I wrote summaries of the hospital’s work: the record number of daily tubal ligations, abortions, IUD insertions. When annual targets were reached, I recorded the achievements. Even then, tubal ligations were quantified, and annual targets were set. There were peak periods of family planning when there were not enough hospital beds. Post-operative patients and their families were sprawled out on the floor. I once witnessed a young woman dragged, kicking and screaming, into the operating theater by four security guards, who each held one of her flailing limbs, as if she were a pig being held on a chopping board.
Nothing changed after the policy allowed two children. The old family-planning slogan “Even if you bleed enough to make a river, you must not give birth to an extra child!” is still visible on the walls of dilapidated houses. Regardless of whether the long arm of the authorities’ implementation of the policy is rigid or loose, the grip on our wombs means women have no rights to be our own masters, let alone to be free.
After the two-child policy was launched, the birth rate was much lower than the government anticipated. In the seventh census in 2020, the birth rate hit a new record low. From 2016 to 2021, the two-child policy evolved into a three-child policy, because the population problems could no longer be hidden from the public. As a matter of urgency, a new generation of wombs was tasked with a formidable historical mission: to resolve the dangers of the aging population. As the policy put it: “Improve the structure of China’s population by implementing active strategies in response to the aging population.” 2
Birth policies gradually relaxed but the people were not happy. More and more people recognized that by disrespecting women’s dignity and depriving them of basic rights, regardless of whether it was by forced sterilization or demanding more births, wombs are merely a tool in the hands of the rulers. People who do not wish to have children complain online about sky-rocketing house prices, crippling mortgages, the cost of cars, the restrictions of the household registration system, prospects for promotion, meager salaries, inflation, all manner of taxes, vicious competition, the rat race, the pressure of just surviving. More and more people just want to opt out or, in the words of a Chinese millennials’ meme, opt for “lying flat.” 3
Even more bizarrely, it’s not just the government that makes decisions about women’s birth issues—men do too. In a nauseating propaganda clip titled “I want three children,” the ambassadors endorsing the three-child brand are men, and half of them are successful. 4 Not a single woman makes an appearance, and no one cares about what they might have to say.
Scholars have discovered from the three national censuses taken over the last thirty years that “family planning undoubtedly exacerbated the imbalance in the chance of survival between girl and boy infants.” Some places even had a one-and-a-half-child policy, a policy which implicitly told the public that “the government believes the value of boys is greater than that of girls,” reinforcing a predisposition for boys. 5
Some orphanages took advantage of this trend to make money, accepting girls only for sale overseas. 6 Today, China has the second-largest economy in the world, yet the level of progressiveness is still bleak. 7
If there is no consoling for the sacrifice and hurt that women have suffered, if there is no reflection upon the humiliation and pain the government’s cruel policies have made women endure, the wombs of China will continue to suffer. Chinese women’s pain and forbearance are constantly on my mind, as is their resistance. If 400 million aborted embryos and unborn children could live in the pen of a science-fiction writer to build a country more populous than America, then perhaps they would make a case for just compensation.
China’s family planning has coursed from one extreme to another and China’s wombs have never known a moment’s peace, forever facing new terrors. Many women who refuse to have a second child are forced to divorce.
As I am writing this essay, the national policy changed yet again, now permitting the birth of a fourth child. More than that number will not result in any fines. However, Chinese women are fed up with being told how many children they are allowed to bear. They await a far weightier announcement: reproductive freedom.
—25 August 2021
Sheng Keyi is a contemporary Chinese novelist. She has been reviewed and interviewed in international publications such as the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Review of Books. Her works have been translated into fifteen languages and include the novels Northern Girls, Death Fugue, and Wild Fruit, as well as the novella Paradise and several short story collections.
Jane Weizhen Pan is a literary translator based in Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been published by the New York Times, Penguin, and the New York Review of Books.
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