I don’t know nearly enough about this topic to write any type of discussion or in depth post, but I would like to share experiences I’ve heard about abortion in China. I have read a lot about the topic, and especially enjoyed Xinran’s Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, which tells the stories of a handful of Chinese women who had lost their daughter in some way, often through pressure to have a son, rather than a daughter.
My husband is an only child, but he wasn’t my mother-in-law’s only pregnancy. Her first pregnancy was a few months before she became pregnant with R and she talks of it quite freely. She says that R is ‘number 2’ and that ‘number 1’ had to be aborted because she had ‘eaten medicine’ as she puts it. I guess that means that before she confirmed she was pregnant, she took a course of medicine, maybe antibiotics. In Chinese eyes, and especially at that time during the 80s, people had to be sure their unborn child was the healthiest it could be, as it was highly likely to be their only child. Taking medicine was probably too risky as you couldn’t be sure whether it would affect the development of the fetus.
When I suffered an early miscarriage last year, my mother-in-law was quick to discuss both my miscarriage and her abortion in the same breathe. This is easy to do because the words used for miscarriage and abortion are the same (流产 liu chan), but this angered me at first, as I was devastated about my miscarriage, which was not down to any fault of my own (although MiL was quick to tell me what I’d done wrong, ‘you shouldn’t have been running’, ‘you should have eaten more meat’, etc.). How could she compare my natural miscarriage to her intentional act to end her pregnancy?? But as time goes on and my pain becomes less acute, I realise it’s quite possible she feels a similar pain. Perhaps she didn’t want to end the pregnancy. I don’t know whether the reasons she gives were her true reasons or not, but either way perhaps she did not want to end that pregnancy, and she was pressurised or felt she had to. Perhaps in the days, weeks and months following, she felt the same way I did: life isn’t fair.
The more I read about the strong social/family pressure at that time to have a son, the more I wonder to myself whether it’s possible MiL’s first pregnancy was discovered to be a girl, and whether because FiL is the oldest son, this wasn’t acceptable. A lot of the stories I’ve read on the topic seem to attribute the more extreme pressure and practices to people in the countryside, but urban people weren’t immune to the same pressures. Maybe it was a girl and they wanted a boy. In which case I don’t doubt MiL’s suffering: she always talks of her wish to have to a daughter, perhaps for the one she misses.
‘Number 1’ wasn’t MiL’s only abortion. She went on to have at least two more after R was born (I suppose contraception wasn’t in popular use at that time), all managed surgically. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to abort multiple pregnancies if you really wanted another child, it must have been heartbreaking. MiL also talks of the experiences of her 3 sisters, with at least 2 of them also having to undergo abortions at some point. She has also talked about her final abortion, at the age of 29, after which she never became pregnant again. She attributes this to putting her body through too many surgical procedures, of course something could have been damaged, but I also wonder if after 3 abortions and 1 live birth, the hospital routinely practised sterilisation, to stop the cycle?
Times have changed somewhat, but during my antenatal care in Chinese hospitals I could still feel the echoes from earlier times. It sure makes me glad I come from where I do and live now.