The day of Mei Shunping’s fifth forced abortion in China was “the saddest day of my life,’’ she told a congressional subcommittee this week.
The cause that human rights activist Chen Guangcheng has so long championed is often glossed over in this country, where we tend to focus on how cool it is that a blind guy scaled a fence and escaped his captors like some kind of action hero. But Mei spelled out the gory particulars for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.
On a monthly basis, she told those of us in the hearing room, she and all other female employees in the textile factory where she worked were subjected to humiliating physical exams to document that they weren’t pregnant; otherwise, under China’s one-child policy, they weren’t paid. And when any woman not approved for childbearing was even suspected of missing a period, co-workers were quick to inform on her, because when one became illegally pregnant, all were punished.
On the worst day of Mei’s life, not only was she physically dragged to the hospital, she said, but she collapsed in pain after complications following the procedure. She had no one to lean on, either, since her husband had been thrown in jail for arguing with the doctors: “My young son didn’t know what was happening and kept crying for his father. I didn’t know what to do and could only hold my son and cry with him. Even now, when I think of all this, my heart shudders and the pain throbs.”
That was Dec. 14, 1990, a long time ago. But the ordeal didn’t end even after Mei, now 54, came to this country nearly a decade later: “My body suffered great damage from all the forced abortions. I gradually grew afraid of family life with my husband” and “tried to find excuses to refuse any intimacy demands.’’ As a result, the couple eventually divorced, reconciling only recently.
Officially, China no longer carries out forced abortions, but advocates for Chen’s cause have plenty of evidence that argues otherwise, including what they say are photos documenting recent cases. These images are not for the squeamish. One seems to show a baby who had somehow survived a late-term abortion, only to be found by her mother drowned in a bucket of water.
Chai Ling, herself an escaped dissident and the founder of an advocacy group called “All Girls Allowed,” which opposes China’s one-child policy, told the committee how disappointed she was in the U.S. reaction to Chen’s escape from captivity to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing: “Several days ago, an American official casually told the New York Times, ‘The days of blowing up the relationship [with China] over a single guy are over.’ It grieves me to hear Chen dismissively referred to as ‘a single guy.’ He is one man, it’s true. But he is a symbol — a hero — in the eyes of women, children and the poor in China.”
Then Chen, who still hopes to come to the United States with his family, called into the hearing via cellphone and described how the home of his older brother, Chen Guangfu, had been broken into by police who beat him and his son, Chen Kegui. When the younger man fought back, Chen Guangcheng said, police charged him with attempted homicide.
“My elder brother was taken away by these thugs without any reasoning and then they came back and started beating my nephew, using sticks, violently beating him up. For three hours, the bleeding on his head and face did not stop. It was so violent he had to defend himself.”
As Chen spoke, his supporters gathered around subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) to hear the phone call better, and took turns telling Chen they were praying for him. Chen has told friends that he has been allowed to fill out an application for a passport, and hopes to be allowed to travel within the next two weeks.
In the United States, much of the support for Chen has come from those who oppose abortion. But where are the abortion rights supporters? There is so much talk about the search for common ground on the abortion issue — sincere talk, I believe. But if the brutal oppression of women robbed of any semblance of “choice” isn’t something we can all agree on, I don’t know what would be.
Melinda Henneberger covers politics for The Post and anchors “She the People.” Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.