流产 to fall through

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.

15 thoughts on “流产 to fall through

  1. What a lovely story and thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine what pain you must have went through when you had a miscarriage. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a woman (or couple) I’m sure. Thanks for sharing it!

    It’s really sad to see that so many women get abortions because they are expecting a girl. It’s a sad cultural thing…. It’s changing though so that’s good!


  2. Unfortunately contraception and sexual education are still not popular in China. Unwanted pregnancies abound, and abortions are way too common.

    This was a very powerful article. Thanks for writing!


  3. Brave of you to share this. It’s hard to go through, especially here where the words are interchangeable and abortion is common and has few negative connotaions. I understand your feelings; my first pregnacy ended in a miscarriage at 11 weeks (MIL chalks it up to my having rollerskated, of all things!) and with the two that have followed, it’s always hard to see the doctor check the box that says that I’ve had one miscarriage/abortion. I do take comfort in the fact that my oldest is a boy so that no one should say that I had a second because I wanted a boy. It’s so odd how most of the two children families are a girl and then a boy. Very few with two girls.

    From what I know contraception isn’t reliable still; one sister-in-law has had an abortion almost every year since I’ve been part of the family…seven years now. My husband is in an office full of women; at least once a year one of the younger ones has a week off to rest following an abortion. He brings home free condoms from work; says they’re available to everyone. Plus women who work for companies get some sort of device to place inside their body. Apparently they have to get one after they have their child; I think there’s not a lot of education on how to use it and when it falls out, they don’t replace it until they go for their physical the next year. I know one friend who wouldn’t replace hers when it came out and she got pregnant at least twice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Charlotte, thanks for your comment 🙂
      Sorry to hear that. Rollerskating of all things… that’s not very scientific. I get that women blame themselves, but no one else has the right to speculate about blame. MC is often a mystery.
      An abortion a year?! That must really take its toll. They are so suspicious about the contraceptive pill too. Sex education in China sure needs improvement.
      I didn’t know you had a new blog, I’m sure it’ll be a very useful source of information for me and many others, thanks!


  4. Abortion is still a sensitive topic, even in China with so many happening. Some years ago I read a study that there are for women under 30years in average 1.4x abortions…I can’t say how accurate that study was but still shows how crazyily often it is done.
    My mother had to miscarriages before she had me and she is always horrofied on how abortion is being used in many cases world wide. I know several Chinese who had more! than 5 abortions in the past years whileas I do not know any German or Finnish who had one except one person where her baby diagnosed early on with down syndrom and both she and her husband decided against it as they had already one child with down syndrom and didnt know if they could handle another one with this condition…


    • I like to think that people in the West put a lot of thought into abortions and wouldn’t make the decision lightly, but in China it is encouraged and has no stigma I suppose. We’re all lucky to have access to abortion, but China is taking it too far and obviously their reproductive freedom is restricted in the opposite way to many other countries.
      Thanks for your comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s really hard to talk about abortion (and miscarriage) and I admire you for tackling the topic. I think they are both kind of taboo and also such emotional hot buttons (at least in the US, where I’m from).

    I find it sad that in China so many women rely on abortion as a form of birth control. It is so hard on women to go through that–financially, emotionally, and physically. I was shocked to find that most Chinese believe oral contraceptives cause infertility. My husband was convinced I’d never get pregnant because I took the pill for several years. The miseducation is unfortunate, to say the least.

    As far as 流产, I was confused at first that this word was used to describe both abortions and miscarriages, since they deserve a distinction. I actually talked about it to my American friend, who is a nurse, and I think she said that in medical terms a miscarriage is referred to as a spontaneous abortion. I found that interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There sure is a lot of misinformation about contraception in China, they have a lot of work to do there. My husband also had the same concerns after hearing I’d taken the pill for a number of years!
      Yes, I read that spontaneous abortion is used in the medical sphere, but I think in the West, a distinction is very important to us, perhaps in China they don’t have such a moral distinction.
      Thanks for your comment 🙂


  6. You’re brave to share your own experience with having a miscarriage. It must have been very tough to go through this.

    I’m sure it’s like you said – hard for women even if they didn’t have a miscarriage, but an abortion. There are so many reasons women in China get abortions, some because they have to give birth to a male family heir, others because they aren’t married, are too young, … It’s sad it still happens so often and that the main reason they have to get an abortion is often that they didn’t use contraceptives.

    When they asked me if I’ve had an abortion or a miscarriage at routine checkups during my pregnancy in China, they used the words 人流 and 流产 to distinguish between the two terms (the former being the term used for an abortion and the latter being the term they used for miscarriage). I was always confused which was which, but maybe from a medical standpoint the impacts on body and mind really are similar?


  7. First and foremost, thank you for sharing light on such a sensitive topic. I hope the pain of your miscarriage will someday be completely gone 😦 *big hugs from my side*

    in South Africa, you can legally get an abortion at 12 without parental consent and having no questions asked about it, yet you can get arrested for kissing (and even hugging!) someone of the opposite sex if you are under 16.

    I do not blame women for getting abortions done and if China is anything like South Africa, public birth control somehow seems to fail a lot… I read an article a few years back that the abortion rate in South Africa increases by averagely 30% with each year either due to getting pregnant out of wedlock, or due to rape :(. The world is quite a hectic place.

    And the whole meat thing… my boyfriend’s mother thankfully hasn’t started with that yet since it’s more like “please just don’t get your girlfriend pregnant until you’re married”, but my ex’s mother in very broken English told me to eat meat now because she was worried that if we were planning to have a kid in the future (by future, I mean 5-10 years LOL), I would need to prepare my body now in order to successfully birth a strong and healthy child. So I get you on that point. The joys of being vegetarian or vegan, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Eleni, thanks for your comment and your hugs 🙂
      Age 12?! That’s so young! It sounds like the law is a bit contradictory there… After all though, we’re so lucky that we have access to safe abortion.
      Oh my gosh, you should eat meat now so you can get pregnant in future, like vegetarianism causes infertility?!!! That’s far-fetched. I guess there are lots of misconceptions like this amongst Chinese people as science is still relatively new to them and less important to people.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I also want to say you are brave and good to write about this topic. I didn’t know that the words for miscarriage and abortion were the same in Chinese. I have been thinking about how people can rationalize the two things in their minds as being like the same, and the only thing I can think of is that for most of them, both of them are out of their control. One happens because of nature and the other happens because of social expectations and pressure. Women may choose to have an abortion but may not view it as their own choice.

    Thank you for sharing this story with us and it is interesting how your MIL was so free to talk about it with you.


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