The one-child policy was bad and so is “One Child Nation”

I was considering assigning the students in my Family Demography seminar to watch the documentary, One Child Nation: The Truth Behind the Propaganda, so I watched it. The movies uses the tragic family history of one of the directors, Nanfu Wang, to tell the story of the Chinese birth planning policy that began in 1979 and extended through many modifications until 2015. Nothing against watching it, but it’s not good. The one-child policy wasn’t good either, of course, leading to many violations of human rights and a lot of suffering and death.

Before watching the movie, I’m glad I read the review by Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist who spent about 25 years studying the one-child policy and related questions (summarized in three books and many articles, here). It’s short and you should read it, but just to summarize a couple of key historical points:

  • The policy was “the cornerstone of a massively complex and consequential state project to modernize China’s population,” and can’t be understood in the context of birth control alone.
  • Many people opposed and resisted the policy, but reducing birth rates was a commonly-understood goal, for both gender equality and economic development, and many women were glad the government supported them in that effort. The “vast majority” felt “deep ambivalence” about the policy, weighing individual desires against the perceived need to sacrifice for the common good.
  • The policy was unevenly applied and enforced (it was especially harsh in the provinces featured in the film), and after 1993 enforcement became less egregious. 
  • Exceptions were added starting in the early 1980s, until by the late 1990s the majority of the population was not subject to a one-child rule. 

There are some other specific errors and distortions, including the dramatic, incorrect claim that “the one-child policy [was] written into China’s constitution” in 1982 (as Greenhalgh writes, “the 1982 Constitution says only: “both husbands and wives are duty-bound to practice birth planning”). And the decision to translate all uses of the term “birth planning” as “one-child policy.” That said, the stories of forced abortions, sterilizations, and infanticide are wrenching and ring true.

I have two things to add to Greenhalgh’s review. First, a simple data illustration to show that China, really, is not a “one-child nation.” Using Chinese census data, here is the total number of children (by age 35-39) born to three groups of Chinese women, arranged according to their ages in 1980, about when the one-child policy began.

The shift left shows the decline in number of children born: the mean fell from 3.8 to 2.5 to 1.8 in these data. (Measuring Chinese fertility is complicated, but the census provides a reasonable ballpark.) But the main thing I want to show is that among the last group — those who were beginning their childbearing years when the policy took effect — 61% had two or more children. The idea that China became a “one-child nation” under the policy is false.

Second, the movie takes a hard turn in the middle and focuses on international adoption, and the illegal trafficking of mostly second-born girls to orphanages that sought to place them abroad. This was a very serious problem. But the movie tells the story of the most notorious scandal (for which many people served jail terms) as if it were the common practice, and centers on the savior-like behavior of American activists helping adopted children trace their familial roots. Granting that of course that corruption was terrible, and that the motivations of many (some?) adoptive parents (including me) were good, from China’s point of view it’s not a central story in the history of the one-child policy. As the movie notes, 130,000 Chinese children were adopted abroad during the period, during which time hundreds of millions were born.

Greenhalgh summarizes on this point, calling the film a:

“familiar coercion narrative, complete with villain (the state), victims (rural enforcers and targets), and savior (an American couple offering DNA services to match adopted girls in the U.S. with birth parents in China). The characters (at least the victims and saviors) have some emotional complexity, but they still play the stock roles in an oft-told tale. For American viewers, this narrative is comforting, because it provides a simple, morally clear way to react to troubling developments unfolding in a faraway, little understood land. And by using China (communist, state-controlled childbearing) as a foil for the U.S. (liberal, relative reproductive freedom), the film leaves us feeling smug about the assumed superiority of our own system.”

The many centuries of Chinese patriarchy are a dark part of the human story, and in some ways is unique. For example — relevant to this recent histyory — female infanticide and selling girls has a long history (a history that includes foot binding and other atrocities). The Chinese Communist Party, for all its misdeeds, did not create this problem. Gender inequality in China, including the decline in fertility — which was mostly accomplished before 1979 — has markedly improved since 1949. Greenhalgh concludes: “In China, before the state began managing childbearing, reproductive decisions were made by the patriarchal family. Since the shift to a two-child policy, they have been subject to the strong if indirect control of market forces. One form of control may be preferable to another, but freedom over our bodies is an illusion.”

Abortion is not a holocaust, and feminism is not about convenience

a photo of a cute pig next to a 16-cell human embryo .
Pig (left) and human.

Quick, disorganized comment on abortion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who opposes abortion rights, recently wrote in defense of the Kevin Williamson, fired from the Atlantic, for saying this, before he was hired:

Someone challenged me about my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that. In fact, as I wrote, what I have in mind is hanging.

Douthat thinks feminists are just as extreme as this, but even worse because they’re on the wrong side (the side in favor of the baby holocaust).

Douthat is concerned that abortion is “justified with the hazy theology of individualism.” When he says that what he’s insulting is feminism. He’s mocking us for being stupid (hazy) atheists who don’t realize secularism is just another theology (like Chris Smith does). And “individualism” refers to the idea that women have rights. Privilege is congratulating yourself for exposing oppressed people’s struggle for liberation as actually being about their individual self-gratification.

In claiming to make a moral argument, he pits this claim to women’s individualistic convenience against the holocaust:

the distinctive and sometimes awful burdens that pregnancy imposes on women have become an excuse to build a grotesque legal regime in which the most vulnerable human beings can be vacuumed out or dismembered, killed for reasons of eugenics or convenience or any reason at all.

There are no men, no patriarchy, in this telling, and that’s telling. It is important to say, which Douthat won’t, that abortion rights are women’s rights, that women’s rights are not about some decadent “individual” rights but about systemic group oppression perpetrated over millennia, especially by religion (especially by Douthat’s religion, Catholicism).

Douthat wants to take the abortion debate to the moral plane of “the killing of millions of innocents” (his phrase) versus feminist selfish self-indulgence. He is egging on his fellow anti-feminists, pushing them to take this extremist position while decrying the extremism of feminists. Organized anti-feminism doesn’t want to say abortion is really really murder because then women will turn against them, because women aren’t idiots. The mainstream abortion rights movement doesn’t want to say fetuses are human because it makes abortion seem worse, plus for early-term pregnancies it’s really not true. Still, we should argue about abortion as if it’s a decision that matters, not only as if it’s the restriction of the right to make that decision that matters. Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was not decided on the principle that women can take a fetal life when it’s inside their own body, but on the principle of respecting women’s privacy rights to make personal decisions. This makes it harder to have the real feminist argument. I’m with Douthat that we should have a real moral argument, which he in his sneering at “individualism” actually refuses to engage.

Only religion can say all fetuses are instantly human; any scientific understanding exposes this incontrovertibly as just crazy talk. But abortion rights don’t depend on fetuses not being human at all. If you want to take the argument off the religious turf, you have to acknowledge that there is no moral instant when a fetus becomes human — science can’t locate that transformation more precisely than sometime between conception and birth. For that matter, there is no moral bright line between human and animal as far as suffering and death, that separates a human from a chimpanzee from a pig from a dog. (Many of us are, after all, not fully human ourselves, but part homo neanderthalensis.) There is moralizing, but not morality, in approving the grotesquely cruel slaughter of billions of sentient animals for “convenience or any reason at all,” while labeling women who abort sixteen-cell fetuses as murderers.

Ending life is a serious moral decision, of the kind Douthat and others are comfortable letting men take in many ways, in wars, and corporate decisions, and state policies, and slaughterhouses. Abortion rights mean women deserve that responsibility, too. Abortion rights don’t rest on the inconsequentialness of the decision but on the humanity of women. There is no reason to shy away from that. Catharine MacKinnon, who is aging well on this, wrote in 1983:

My stance is that the abortion choice must be legally available and must be women’s, but not because the fetus is not a form of life. In the usual argument, the abortion decision is made contingent on whether the fetus is a form of life. I cannot follow that. Why should women not make life or death decisions?

That’s my attempt to defend abortion rights without relying on euphemism and evasion or the hazy theology of individualism.

From there to here, Obama to ultrasound

One way to tell a political story.

I’m not an expert in electoral or legislative politics. But this is how I’m seeing how we got to the latest abortion bills in North Carolina.

1. Barack Obama elected president, 2008.

2. White racial animosity helps animate and coalesce the Tea Party movement.

3. In 2010, Republican Harry Warren, a human resource specialist for Wendy’s franchises, runs for North Carolina’s state assembly on a platform of cutting taxes, cutting education spending, and annexation reform. He wins the Republican primary with 66% of the vote after endorsement by the N.C. Tea Party.

According to his website, Warren was a political science major at Kent State during the Vietnam War. His general statement reads:

The Needs of this district are no different than the needs of the nation-safety from attack, whether by terrorists or street criminals; fiscal responsibility on the part of those we elect to positions of public trust; a flourishing economic environment to provide meaningful work and opportunity for advancement; and an educational system that builds a strong, diverse citizenship to ensure our future.

4. In November 2010, Warren wins 50.5% of the vote, beating 10-year incumbent Democrat Lorene Coats by 166 votes, 9,117 to 8,951.

5. With a new Republican majority in both houses of state government, N.C. House leader Paul “Skip” Stam (cropped at right) announces “100 Days That Will Change North Carolina,” by opposing Obamacare, stopping unions, cutting regulation and school spending, expanding charter schools, requiring voter IDs, and annexation reform.

6. Over a veto by Gov. Bev Perdue, the NC legislature passes a budget that bans funding for Planned Parenthood’s reproductive health services.

7. June 8, 2011. NC House Bill 854, the “Woman’s Right to Know Act,” passes in the House, with Warren as a cosponsor.

The law would require an “an obstetric real‑time view of the unborn child” be shown to any pregnant woman seeking an abortion, with “a simultaneous explanation of what the display is depicting, which shall include the presence, location, and dimensions of the unborn child within the uterus and the number of unborn children depicted.” Also, “The individual performing the display shall offer the pregnant woman the opportunity to hear the fetal heart tone.” (Patients would, however, be legally allowed to avert their eyes and refuse to listen.) The Senate also passed the bill, which will presumably be vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue.

Gay marriage and abortion in Mexico City

Follow-up to: Gay marriage in Mexico City.

As the date for legal gay marriage approaches in Mexico City, conservative opposition builds.

Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera:

Today the family is under attack in its essence by the equivalence of homosexual unions with marriage between a man and a woman.

The language on adoption by same-sex couples – also to be legalized – is especially vitriolic. The Catholic opposition says it will subject children to…

violence of all sorts (such as psychological), as their fragile condition as children is taken advantage of in order to introduce them into environments that do not foster their full development.

Legal challenges to follow.

Opponents of the the gay marriage law see themselves as fighting a rising tide of rights, following Mexico City’s legalization of early abortions in 2007. These limited abortion rights have unleashed a “plague” of abortions, they say (about 35,000). On the other side, feminist groups are trying to take the issue national.

Whenever people use raw numbers to show the extent of a problem, it’s a good idea to pull out your crayon and napkin and see what they’re really talking about. It’s one thing to say, morally, one abortion is too many. But if you will concede that two abortions is worse than one, then it’s worth comparing rates.

So, on the “plague” idea, a rough calculation. Let’s say:

  • The global abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women ages 15-44 per year, and
  • the Mexico City metro area’s population of 21 million is 20% of Mexico’s population,
  • and there were 27 million women in the country ages 15-44 in 2008, so
  • there should be about 5.4 million women ages 15-44 in the Mexico City metro area, and
  • at average international rates they would be expected to have about 150,000 abortions per year.

Looks to me like they are averaging about 12,000 per year (35,000 from April 2007 to December 2009). Round numbers. So if it’s a plague, it’s a much-smaller-than-average plague.

Erectile distribution

Barbara Boxer recently made headlines comparing abortion coverage to Viagra:

The men who have brought us this don’t single out a procedure that’s used by a man, or a drug that is used by a man, that involves his reproductive health care and say they have to get a special rider. There’s nothing in this amendment that says if a man some days wants to buy Viagra, for example, that his pharmaceutical coverage cannot cover it, that he has to buy a rider. I wouldn’t support that.

It’s true that abortions are things women get and erectile dysfunction drugs are things men get, and both are part of the broad sweep of reproductive healthcare, but some people don’t see the parallel.

From an inequality perspective, treating erectile dysfunction is not simple. On the one hand, it is a condition that affects older men more – 44% of men in their 60s, 70% of those age 70+. And Medicare part D doesn’t cover E.D. drugs. With Viagra costing about $15 per pill, or about $7 for the co-payment when it’s covered by private insurance – and grossing almost $2 billion last year – health care reform stands to increase access to E.D. drugs and massive profits for pharmaceutical makers.

But is covering E.D. just a boondoggle to cater to the older consumer and generate profits for the rich?

A study based on the 2001-02 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that E.D. is associated with behavioral issues such as smoking and exercise, as well as obesity, heart disease, and prostate conditions. But it’s also more prevalent (controlling for age) among Black men and those who didn’t finish high school. So health care reform could help level the erectile distribution as well.

It might not be the same issue as providing access to abortions, but is it on the same level as Botox?

Is abortion healthcare?

In an interview with ABC news, President Obama doesn’t seem to include abortion in his definition of health care.

Federal law currently restricts federal funding for abortions, and the Supreme Court has upheld the principle of not subsidizing something just because it’s a Constitutional right.

If the goal of healthcare reform is to provide universal coverage and reduce costs, and abortion is excluded, then it raises the question of whether abortion is healthcare. According to the transcript, Obama said:

You know, I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill. And we’re not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions. And I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test — that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we’re not restricting women’s insurance choices, because one of the pledges I made in that same speech was to say that if you’re happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, that it’s not going to change. …

[Q]: Do you think that amendment is status quo or does it lean a little bit in one direction or the other?

OBAMA: I think that there are strong feelings on both sides. And what that tells me is that there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we’re not changing the status quo. And that’s the goal.

It occurs to me that one benefit of a single-payer healthcare system is that without separate systems for rich and poor women, excluding poor women from reproductive care wouldn’t be so easy.

(Wait a minute: When did “not changing the status quo” become “the goal”?)

Catholic advocacy on abortion, pro and con

For the first time since Gallup started asking the question in 1995, a majority of Americans describe themselves as “pro-life.”  That may include a majority of Congress. Enter the Catholic debate.

On the one hand:

On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), we strongly urge you [House members] to vote for the Stupak-Ellsworth-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith Amendment … Despite some claims to the contrary, H.R. 3962 [the healthcare reform bill] … utterly fails to maintain current prohibitions on abortion mandates and abortion funding. Instead it creates elaborate measures requiring people to pay for other people’s abortions with their taxes, private premiums or federal subsidies. … Additionally, H.R. 3962 allows the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to mandate that the “public option” will include unlimited abortions. Millions of purchasers will be forced to pay an “abortion surcharge,” which requires purchasers of many plans to pay directly and explicitly for abortion coverage. This is unprecedented in federal law. The [SEPKDLS] Amendment will not affect coverage of abortion in non-subsidized health plans, and will not bar anyone from purchasing a supplemental abortion policy with their own funds.

On the other hand:

They are demanding that the bill go far beyond the status quo restrictions on abortion that had been incorporated into the original bill. In an outrageous amendment … antichoice Democrats are demanding explicit and unequivocal exclusion of any coverage for abortion, even in private health plans in the proposed health insurance exchange. Women would lose coverage under this proposal. … Catholics support healthcare reform and support coverage for reproductive healthcare services in that reform. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been on Capitol Hill claiming to speak for America’s Catholics. They do not do so with any legitimacy. Poll after poll has shown that the American public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, does not want to see Congress play politics with women’s healthcare. American Catholics will not forget who held their healthcare hostage, and allowed it to be held hostage, when the elections come around in 2010.

The Catholic angle emerged as pivotal to the whole health care bill at the last minute, as anti-abortion Democrats enlisted the Catholic bishops to endorse the amendment, so the amendment would get Republican votes, end up in the bill, and provide cover for anti-abortion Democrats to support it. Whew.

I’m wondering, how often do we pay, through public or private resource pools, for practices we think are immoral? Naturally, the political arena is a reasonable place to hash out which of these we are willing to tolerate and which we are not. Under current law and policy we bend over a long way not to pay for abortion services, effectively denying healthcare to many poor women. This principle was enshrined in the 1989 Webster decision by the Supreme Court, which let stand a state ban on funding for abortions, even though legal, in part because:

The Due Process Clauses generally confer no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government may not deprive the individual.

If you have the right, the state may not take it away. If you don’t have the right, the state need not provide it to you.

UPDATE: The House passed the amendment, 240-194, which might have made it possible for the full bill to pass 220-215.