On April 22, 2012, Chen Guancheng, a blind Chinese civil rights activist, escaped house arrest after years of torture and abuse for speaking out against the Chinese government’s one-child policy and forced sex selective abortions and sterilizations. U.S. and international officials were quick to condemn the Chinese government’s persecution of Chen and eventually the Chinese government acquiesced to international pressure, granting Chen a visa to leave China and continue his law studies here in the United States. Chen’s plight landed him on the front page of the New York Times, the cover of the Economist, and other newspapers and magazines throughout the world, while he was carefully shepherded to the U.S. with the support of the Obama administration and the State Department.
Only weeks after Mr. Chen landed in the U.S., the pro-life sting operation group, Live Action, released a series of video footage of Planned Parenthood clinics throughout the United States actively and knowingly participating in sex-selective abortions. The videos spread rapidly online and public outcry was such that it sparked a Congressional debate on whether or not to ban sex-selective abortions in the United States. When a bill was introduced that would make it illegal to knowingly perform an abortion due to the sex or gender of the child, the Obama administration—that had just weeks earlier lauded Chen’s activism in China—came out in opposition of the bill and threw its support behind Planned Parenthood under the banner of so-called “women’s health.”
The bill, which needed a two-thirds majority vote in Congress, was defeated.
The practice of sex-selective abortions is a relatively new issue in the United States, but a practice that has become widespread in places like India and China, both patriarchal societies that typically prefer boys to girls. A new documentary film, It’s a Girl, produced by Shadowline Films, aims to expose this gruesome, yet common practice, which has led to what the United Nations has estimated as the loss of 200 million “missing” girls.
Unfortunately, as this documentary evidences, it’s not just that these girls are missing—it’s that they have been aborted, or killed after birth, simply based on the fact that they are girls. As the tagline of the film suggests, the phrase “It’s a girl” has become the deadliest three words in the world. Today more females have been aborted or killed than the combined total of all the genocides of the 20th century. Hence, the practice of sex-selective abortions is now commonly being referred to a “gendercide”—the systematic elimination of a particular group of people—in this case, girls.
“Rearing a daughter is like watering a neighbor’s tree,” goes a local Telugu saying in India. Meanwhile, another popular Hindi expression claims, “A daughter is a burden on her father’s head.” Or put more bluntly by an Indian woman interviewed in the documentary that aborted or strangled eight of her children after birth, “Why keep girls when raising them would be difficult?” In India, the prospects of raising a girl seem bleak for many families, and for the most part, girls are only viewed as an eventual expense for the mother and father. Due to Indian cultural traditions, parents of girls are expected to offer large dowries in exchange for a husband with nothing in return. Moreover, Indian boys are expected to care and provide for their children later in life, whereas Indian girls are typically separated from their parents after they are married off.
In 1961, the Indian government outlawed the practice of the dowry, but this has yielded very little change or protection to women, as it is deeply ingrained in the local culture. Today, over 100,000 women are killed each year in India in what are known as “dowry deaths,” where husbands upset by not receiving a large enough dowry from their bride’s family, become violent towards their wives and in many cases, brutally kill them. Similarly, It’s a Girl, chronicles the case of Dr. Mitu Khurana, now a prominent Indian activist against female gendercide, whose in-laws bribed a local doctor to perform an illegal ultrasound that revealed she was pregnant with twin girls, subjecting her to further violence from her husband and in-laws and pressure to abort. While the Indian government has also outlawed ultrasounds to determine the sex of the child, most doctors are willing to accept bribes from men eager to find out if their wife is carrying a girl, and if so, subsequently arrange for an abortion.
In neighboring China, the situation is equally dismal. In 1978, China initiated its one-child policy as an effort to curb population growth. The policy limits most families to one-child, and as such, most families hope to have boys to carry on the family lineage. While some families are able to purchase special certificates allowing them to have a second child, poor couples that give birth to a second child suffer from harsh policies that do not acknowledge the second child as a legal person under Chinese law. This has created an entire generation of children that exist in China without citizenship or access to education and healthcare. In addition, families that decide to ignore the policy are often subject to scrutiny by local family planning police, which has created a system that rewards local informants who report families that do not honor the policy. In such an environment, one’s neighbor could easily be a paid informant of the Chinese government, and hence, a culture of distrust and fear is widespread.
The past thirty years of China’s one child policy has fostered an attitude of social coercion where girls are contemptuously viewed as second-class citizens. It’s a Girl highlights several Chinese families that have defied the policy and have suffered great persecution at the hands of local officials. Take for example Li, a mother of three girls who was forced to leave her daughters with family members in order to avoid getting caught for having three daughters. Meanwhile, she and her husband work in a factory over 1,000 miles away from home in order to send money back to support their daughters. Other families are not as willing to provide for girls as Li, which has created the widespread problem of abandonment, as Chinese women simply abandon their daughters as soon as they are born, in hopes of being granted permission to get pregnant a second time with a boy. It’s a Girl also captures the story of an elderly woman in a remote village who finds an abandoned baby girl beside a river and decides to take her home to raise it. When the elderly woman’s daughter decides to adopt the child, both the woman and her daughter are shunned for providing care and shelter. After all, in the eyes of their neighbors, “it’s just a girl.”
In 1995, at the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, then First Lady Hillary Clinton addressed the delegates by proclaiming that “It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will. If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women’s rights…. And women’s rights are human rights.” While the intentions and themes outlined in Clinton’s address may be noble, the then First Lady now turned Secretary of State has a problem with consistency. Like her boss, President Obama, Clinton believes—and preaches—that the practice of sex-selective abortions in China, India, and other parts of the world should be condemned and viewed as shameful. Here at home, however, a different story is unfolding.
For several years now, issues of sex-selective abortions abroad have been couched in terms of “abuses to human rights” and “an affront to women’s equality” by U.S. policymakers and international officials. Yet, as the recent debates in the U.S. Congress evidence, pro-choice defenders are unwilling to use the same rhetoric in speaking on the matter at home. Here, the issue is being framed in terms of “women’s choice” or “women’s health.” And, at the heart of the debate is the unwillingness of Clinton, Obama, and others to impose any types of limits on abortion. For them, the slightest admission that abortion just might be harmful or damaging to women is an admission both impossible and untenable. Clinton, like many of her counterparts, have staked their defense of legal abortion as a means of supposed protection used by women to shield themselves and protect their futures, their bodies, and their freedoms. Yet, as Live Action’s video footage has revealed—or more correctly, made clear to those that had any doubts about the practice—abortion is truly a sword used to fight for a lifestyle of sexual freedom and liberation, in which its adherents will accept no limits or constraints.
It’s a Girl serves as a powerful witness to what happens to any society when the dignity of all life fails to receive respect and protection. The gendercide of girls that has taken place over the last thirty years in China and India is evidence of the limitless atrocities that can occur under the banner of “freedom” and “choice” when the most vulnerable are considered dispensable and merely a casualty in efforts to promote equality. In her 1995 Beijing address, Clinton noted that the abuses of women “have continued because, for too long, the history of women has been a history of silence.” For now, the video footage of Live Action and the filmmakers of It’s a Girl are just two of many such efforts to break the silence, though for now they remain voices that are crying in the wilderness, desperate for help. Will we hear them?