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Blazing a pro-life trail

As officials in China reconsider family planning policy, pro-life advocates there work to save babies despite uncooperative doctors and cultural opposition

Blazing a pro-life trail

Bai Suqing with a baby she saved (Photo courtesy of the Beijing pro-life conference organizers)

With buzz cuts and matching outfits, three 4-year-old boys romped around the front of a small conference room—peering into a projector, peeking behind curtains, and cartwheeling on the carpeted floor. Nearby, their mother fielded questions from an audience of about 40 on her experience raising five children, including triplet boys.

In Beijing, where most families have only one child, the idea of having five children is unfathomable.

The 33-year-old mother, Li Yaping, demurred as audience members gawked, snapped photos, and muttered “Liaobuqi!” (“Unbelievable!”) Smiling, she responded: “The boys are as easy to take care of as if we only had one child. We never regretted keeping them.”

Here, at the first national pro-life conference in China, held in Beijing over two days this past May, the rambunctious boys represented the fruits of China’s growing pro-life movement.

Five years ago, when Li was pregnant with the triplets, her mother-in-law pressured her to abort, arguing Li and her husband already had two daughters and wouldn’t be able to afford three more mouths to feed. Having additional children would also violate China’s family planning laws and could lead to fines or children without official registration.

Li’s pastor connected her with Tang Feixiang, president of the Chinese pro-life group Good Neighbors Center for Pregnancy Help. Tang encouraged the couple to keep the babies and promised to help them find a Christian couple to adopt the boys if they were unable to care for them. Li and her husband agreed not to abort the babies and decided they wanted to keep one boy and place the other two for adoption.

Once Tang sent out a message about Li’s situation on the social media site WeChat, a dozen people responded, offering to adopt the boys or give money to support the family. Li contacted Tang a month later to say she had changed her mind and wanted to keep two of the boys and only place one for adoption. Then she called again to say, “We want to keep all three.”

At the recent Beijing conference, activists from across China gathered to celebrate the tangible successes of the pro-life movement in the Communist nation: babies saved from abortion, church members educated on the sanctity of life, pregnancy care centers established inside hospitals, an annual “Don’t Abort on Children’s Day” campaign, a safe home for mothers, and a hotline to help women with unplanned pregnancies.

The pro-life momentum coincides with a significant shift in Chinese family planning policy: After enforcing a long-standing one-child policy, then expanding it to a two-child policy nearly three years ago, Chinese officials recently signaled they may drop the birth limits altogether. (Their concerns appear less about the sanctity of life and more about a potential demographic implosion.)

Still, in a country that aborts 23 million babies each year, cultural views do not change overnight. Most people in Chinese society—including many Christians—see abortion as another form of birth control and see having more children as expensive and impractical.

Despite their celebrations, pro-life trailblazers in China have no illusions about the daunting task they face. Many already have their own stories of victories and losses to share.

Photo courtesy of the Beijing pro-life conference organizers

A presentation at the pro-life conference in Beijing. (Photo courtesy of the Beijing pro-life conference organizers)

IN MY FIRST REPORT on the Chinese pro-life movement in 2014, I visited a hospital in Xining in western China that hosts the first pregnancy resource center established by Tang’s Good Neighbors Center.

Tang and Bai Suqing, the head of the Xining pregnancy center, attended this year’s Beijing conference along with other pro-life leaders and recruits. Conference attendees signed a declaration affirming that life starts at conception. They affirmed that Christians must oppose abortion and promote life by helping the mother, and affirmed that the church should be involved in adoption, an uncommon practice in China.

Around the lunch table, attendees from six different Chinese provinces swapped stories about their struggles and shared tips for helping mothers.

Bai is a fiery woman in her 60s. After working at the Xining pregnancy center for six years—first as a volunteer and then as its sole full-time staff member—she has numerous stories of successes and failures. In total, she says, she has saved 170 babies who otherwise would have been aborted—all by talking to mothers before they headed into the operating room for their abortions.

At first, Bai and other volunteers weren’t allowed even to meet with the pregnant women. Good Neighbors established the Xining pregnancy center inside the outpatient department of the Qinghai Red Cross Hospital because the director of the hospital was a Christian. Yet the non-Christian doctor given oversight of the center initially refused to let Bai meet with women until after they’d had their abortions. (Incidentally, abortion is a moneymaking procedure.) Bai still took advantage of the opportunity: She counseled women who regretted their decision, advised unmarried women to practice abstinence, and did her best to express love to them.

“Because God loved us, we must love others,” Bai said. “Many women I spoke to didn’t want to get an abortion done, but they didn’t think they had any other choice.”

Eventually, a more sympathetic doctor took charge of the center and allowed Bai to meet with pregnant women to tell them about the effects of abortion, show them fetal models, and discuss options besides abortion.

Once, a pregnant woman came to the hospital with heavy bleeding. After a checkup, a doctor informed her she had experienced a miscarriage and said medical staff needed to clean out the baby’s remains. Yet the woman felt convinced there was still life inside her. When Bai heard this, she snuck the woman away to her office and gave her an ultrasound. The woman was right: She had conceived twins and one had survived.

“If it weren’t for me, the doctor would have just gotten rid of the fetus,” said Bai, who believes God protected the baby.

Another time, Bai saw a woman sitting in the waiting room with tears running down her face. When Bai asked what was wrong, the woman explained she had no choice but to get an abortion: She’d become pregnant with her second child just seven months after delivering a baby through cesarean section. In China, doctors claim having a child within three years of a C-section is too risky for the mother. They advised her to abort.

Handout

Li Yaping's triplets shortly after they were born. (Handout)

Bai brought her into her office, where a foreign volunteer encouraged her to keep the baby and explained that in the West, the recommended waiting period after a C-section is six months. “There could be a risk now,” Bai said, “but there could also be a risk if you wait three years.” The woman agreed to keep the baby, who was born healthy, Bai said.

Along with successes, Bai has to deal with the enormity of the evil she’s fighting: Each month, the hospital’s outpatient department performs 200 abortions, and four other departments do abortions as well. Many times the women she speaks to can’t withstand the pressures from parents, boyfriends, or in-laws and decide to go through with the abortion.

“Sometimes I cry so hard and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Bai said. “But after I cry and pray, I have to get back up and keep working.”

THE CHINESE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT originated in churches, where even pastors did not know what to think about abortion: Some female pastors have had abortions themselves or encouraged parishioners to abort in order to “set a good example” as law-abiding citizens. Since beginning his work in 2010, Tang has spoken at more than 100 churches in China about the Bible’s teaching on the sanctity of life.

In 2015, Tang registered Good Neighbors Center as a nongovernmental organization and received an official license, allowing the group to expand its work of opening pregnancy centers inside hospitals and providing sex education, pre-abortion counseling, and post-abortion counseling.

Most people in Chinese society—including many Christians—see abortion as another form of birth control.

The fact that a pro-life group could legally register in China was a sign that the government’s view on population control—and by extension abortion—had shifted. In 2015, the government relaxed the one-child policy for the first time, allowing families to have two children each. After 36 years, the Chinese government had finally seen the consequences of its population control policy: a swelling elderly population supported by a shrinking workforce, a large gender imbalance that consigned millions of men to long-term singleness, and a generation of entitled kids (“Little Emperors”) who grew up as an only child and now face crushing parental pressure to succeed.

In August, the National People’s Congress announced that a new draft of the civil code “will no longer retain the relevant content of family planning,” and many observers believe birth limits will end by the end of this year. China’s health commission also axed three offices previously dedicated to family planning. State media called the demographic imbalance a “national issue” and suggested ways the government could encourage couples to have more children.

Yet the previous shift from a one-child policy to a two-child policy did not lead to the baby boom officials were expecting. China’s fertility rate remains 1.6 births per woman, well below replacement level. Chinese society’s mindset needs to change, and so for now, the goals of both the government and pro-life groups seem aligned.

Screen capture from Don’t Abort on Children’s Day Campaign video

A protest against abortion, photographed and shown in a campaign video for Don’t Abort on Children’s Day. (Screen capture from Don’t Abort on Children’s Day Campaign video)

GOOD NEIGHBORS CENTER RECENTLY OPENED two new pregnancy centers, one at a second hospital in Xining, and one in Fuyang in Anhui province.

Zhou Mei, a chirpy 29-year-old who now leads the Fuyang center, first heard the pro-life message from Tang last year. Although Zhou and her husband were house church evangelists, they knew little about the issue of abortion. Last year, she helped start the Fuyang pregnancy center at a small local hospital where the director is also a Christian. So far, the center has met the familiar challenges, with doctors blocking center workers from meeting with women who come in for abortions. Zhou is currently doing hospital visits with patients in an effort to build relationships with the doctors.

Her new pro-life ministry takes an emotional toll. One client had a medical condition that made her pregnancy risky, yet Zhou was able to convince her to keep the baby. But later, the woman suffered a miscarriage.

Zhou was devastated. Through tears she prayed, “God, isn’t this the work you’ve called me to do? I know that life and death is in you, but could you let me see some hope as I’m starting this ministry?”

She contemplated quitting, and for two weeks stopped showing up to the office. During that time, she repeatedly dreamed about rescuing a baby from drowning. She believed God was trying to tell her something.

“I realized that when God gives you a calling, He won’t let you give up after experiencing your first trial,” Zhou said.

Zhou believes the pregnancy center will be more effective in the future if she can get a license through a government-run project called Post-Abortion Care (PAC), which works in hospitals to inform women about their options before getting an abortion. The group aims to “lower the rates of induced and repeated abortion and improve women’s health standards,” PAC’s spokeswoman told China Women’s News. A pro-life ministry in Chengdu has also partnered with PAC in hospitals in order to gain legitimacy and meet with patients.

Tang of Good Neighbors Center noted the difficulty of establishing pregnancy centers within hospitals due to sometimes-uncooperative doctors. He hopes Good Neighbors can create stand-alone pregnancy clinics or for-profit OB-GYN practices staffed by Christian doctors and nurses who could also counsel women seeking abortions.

Tang also hopes to hold a pro-life conference in China every two years: Pro-life advocates like Zhou say meeting with fellow workers gives them a needed dose of encouragement.

“I felt I was walking a lonely road,” Zhou said. “But once I came [to the Beijing conference] I realized there are many other people who want to do this work, it’s not just me.”

—This story has been updated to correct the credit for the photo of Bai Suqing.

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.