CW: references to sexual violence
One of the more puzzling pieces of pro-choice rhetoric, from a pro-life perspective, is the tendency of pro-choice people to assure us that ‘no one will be forced to have an abortion’. The reason it’s puzzling is first of all, it’s a straw man – pro-life people are not, on the whole, motivated by the fact that they think abortion will be compulsory. (They are motivated by the fact that they think pre-born babies are the moral equals of born babies.) Secondly, however, forced abortion is very much a feature of modern abortion regimes. Thankfully, in most democracies, outright forced abortion is rare, with women instead being subjected to subtle but very real stigma and judgement for getting pregnant at the wrong time or under the wrong circumstances. We’ve blogged about some examples of how this pressure might play out before. However, violent forced abortion is very much a feature of a particular regime today: the plight of the Uyghur people in China.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group whose homeland is the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang – or, as advocates for the region’s political independence prefer to call it, East Turkestan. Since 2014, it is estimated that the Chinese government has interned more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims in prison camps: the largest incarceration of an ethnic group since the Second World War. The Chinese government calls these ‘vocational education and training centres’, intended to combat Uyghurs’ alleged extremist tendencies. (Indicators of ‘extremism’ include ‘abnormal growing of beards and naming of children to exaggerate religious fervour’ and refusing to listen to Chinese state media.) Another claim is that the camps are there to educate unskilled Uyghurs to enable them get employment, a ridiculous claim when you consider that prisoners include prominent academics like Yalqun Rozi and Rahile Dawut. Prisoners in these camps face – among other things – torture and starvation. Recently, survivor testimonies have described the systematic use of rape against prisoners. (You can read about the subsequent backlash experienced by survivors here.)
In recent years, numerous reports have surfaced of widespread forced abortion, contraception and sterilisation in Xinjiang. While the Chinese government denies reports of forced birth control against Uyghurs, their own official statistics tell a different story. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the birth rate in Xinjiang almost halved between 2017 and 2019. This is compared with a national birth rate decline of approximately 2% in the same period.
The Chinese regime cleverly uses the terminology of pro-choice feminism to justify their actions. There was outrage earlier this year when the Chinese embassy in the US claimed that ‘in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uygur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines’.
Forced abortions are nothing new in China (see here and here). But imposing them on Uyghur women is about more than population control. It’s part of a policy designed to wipe out the Uyghurs as a distinct ethnicity. Genocide is not a term that should it be used lightly. But a recent legal opinion by the London-based Essex Court Chambers concluded that there was ‘a very credible case’ that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs. For a while, commentators used the term ‘cultural genocide’, an accusation for which there was no shortage of evidence – the destruction of mosques and graveyards, for instance, and the suppression of the Uyghur language and culture. However, as outlined above, it is now clear that there is a concerted effort to prevent Uyghur births, which meets one of the criteria for genocide as set out by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. States around the world are beginning to accept this, including the Netherlands, Canada and the US.
As a pro-life person in Ireland who is following the plight of the Uyghurs with shock and horror, I can’t help but notice the uncanny silence surrounding this modern-day human rights atrocity. Every time I see women’s rights groups lobbying hard for more abortion in Ireland, North and South, and speaking out against pro-life laws in Poland, the USA and elsewhere, I can’t help but remember their oft-repeated assurance: ‘No one will be forced to have an abortion’. And yet here we have that very practice taking place, as part of the ongoing oppression of a minority ethnic group, and being met with relative silence. This silence is hard to reconcile with consistent lobbying against any restriction or regulation on abortion. If you can’t or won’t speak out against forced abortion and sterilisation, why would you speak out against the far more subtle, but far more prevalent, pressures that women face daily to abort? If pro-choice groups speak out against abortion restrictions in other countries, there is no reason why they should not also speak out against forced abortion in other countries. And yet they don’t – or at least they certainly don’t to the same extent.
Maybe you simply have not heard about the Uyghurs until now. Maybe now that you have, you want to take action. So what can you do about all this? Firstly, educate yourself and others. Read the testimony of Uyghurs (see here and here, for instance). Post about it on social media. Then take direct action. Picket the Chinese embassy. Find out which companies have links to Uyghur forced labour (there’s a list and other information at enduyghurforcedlabour.org) and boycott them. If the company has a shop or branch near you, picket it, and encourage others to do likewise. Put financial pressure on companies to cut their ties with Uyghur forced labour. There is evidence that this works – some companies have already agreed to divest. But don’t take the pressure off until they can prove that they’ve followed through on their promises!
Stop Uyghur Genocide are calling on the International Olympic Committee to strip China of the 2022 Winter Olympics (or as some are calling them, ‘the Genocide Games’). Sign and share their petition here. Help to lobby the sponsors of the games – corporations like Airbnb, Allianz and Coca Cola. Corporations are keen to avoid negative publicity lest it damage their profits. The Chinese government is much the same. Too often the strong Sino-Irish trade relationship is held up as a reason why we should avoid robust condemnation of the Chinese government. Aside from the repugnant implication of this – that trade matters more than human rights – try looking at it the other way: boycotting Chinese companies is much easier, because we have so many to choose from.
NB Also, this should go without saying, but perhaps it needs to be reiterated: conflating Chinese people with the dictatorship which oppresses them is simply wrong, and combating racism against the Chinese community is more important now than ever.
After the Holocaust, the world said ‘Never again’. But as the Jewish human rights organisation René Cassin points out, ‘[i]n China, “never again” is happening again’. The onus is on each of us to take action.