Anti-abortion groups in the U.S. regularly cited Chen in their press releases and fundraising materials, using Chen’s plight — and the slow pace of the diplomatic negotiations that eventually brought him to safety in New York — as fodder for promoting their cause and galvanizing opposition to President Obama.
Conservative media critic Terry Mattingly even detected a secular bias in the news coverage, complaining that reports were ignoring the fact that Chen “is actually a pro-life activist” and a “Christian activist who sees China’s often brutal one-child policy as a violation of human rights as well as religious liberty.”
But the reality differs significantly from the scenario laid out by Mattingly and others: for one thing, Chen Guangcheng is not a Christian, and, more notably, he may not even be what most abortion opponents would consider “pro-life.”
That’s because Chen’s cause in China was not an effort to halt legal abortion per se, but to make Chinese authorities comply with their own laws against forced abortions and sterilizations, a position also advocated by the Obama administration.
“If it’s not forced abortion, I don’t think he’s necessarily against that,” said Bob Fu, a Chinese-born Christian and close friend of Chen who heads Texas-based China Aid, which lobbies for religious freedom in China.
Chen would not oppose “voluntary abortion,” Fu said, since Chen’s focus is on “the rule of law” — on making China a society that respects its own laws, which are routinely flouted, and on promoting the human rights and dignity of its citizens.
Indeed, in Chen’s two principal public statements since arriving in New York on May 19 — an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and an op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday (May 30) — Chen himself did not mention abortion. Instead, he repeatedly stressed that the “fundamental question the Chinese government must face is lawlessness,” as he wrote in The Times. “China does not lack laws, but the rule of law.”
Chen was initially targeted by Chinese authorities in 2005 after he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of poor, rural women who said they were subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China’s one-child policy. That landed him in jail until 2010, and he was then placed under house arrest, which he escaped on April 22, injuring his foot but still managing to reach the U.S. Embassy.
That prompted an international crisis that was only resolved when Chen and his wife were allowed to travel on student visas to New York, where he has pledged to continue speaking out for the rule of law in his homeland.