By Sneha Barot
Earlier this year, the world reacted with outrage as blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng made headlines during his risky escape to the United States to flee persecution. Chen, a human rights lawyer, had exposed and protested coerced abortions, involuntary sterilizations and other abuses in China. Soon thereafter, photos of Feng Jianmei-a rural Chinese woman who was seven months pregnant and forced by local officials to have an abortion-went viral in China and around the globe.
Notably, Chen had never publicly advocated against abortion per se. Instead, he denounced forced abortions as a violation of human rights. Yet, U.S. antiabortion activists and policymakers predictably latched onto Chen’s and Feng Jianmei’s struggles as vindications of their cause, as they consistently have done when cases of coercive sterilizations or abortions have been uncovered in China.
Reproductive rights advocates, meanwhile, responded to the Chen and Feng incidents by reiterating their long-standing principle: Coercion in reproductive decision making-no matter what form it takes-is wrong. Forcing a woman to terminate a pregnancy she wants or to continue a pregnancy that she does not want both violate the same human rights: the right to decide freely whether and when to bear a child and the right to have that decision respected by the government.
From time immemorial, societies, religions and governments have often defined women’s value by their reproductive capacity. And they have subjected women, as childbearers, to coercion- either to have or to not have children for the greater good of those other than themselves. The means have ranged from explicit mandates to more subtle incentives or deterrents to steer reproductive decision making. No matter the motivation for such policies-fears of a population explosion or implosion and the resulting impact on economic or environmental security; the desire for more workers, soldiers or patriots; or religious orthodoxies, which continue in the modern era to be a driving force, in both developed and developing nations-the reproductive self-determination and human rights of individual women are sacrificed.
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