CHINA (BP) — When two pastors — one American, one Chinese — taught on the sanctity of life at a church in northern China, women and men of all ages stood up, sobbing and praying for forgiveness.
Repentance flowed in such words as “Lord, forgive me for aborting my child; I didn’t know it was murder. Lord, forgive me for shedding innocent blood.”
For most in the room, it was the first time they had seen photos of fetal development, learned about what abortion entails and studied what the Bible says about the sanctity of life.
A middle-aged Chinese woman, eyes watering, asked a visitor, “Where do the [aborted babies] go?” She confided, “I’ve had it done before and was wondering if I’d ever see them again.”
The babies go to heaven, she was told. “Oh, that’s so good to hear,” she replied.
Abortion in China is “as common as drinking water,” as one woman put it. The official tally of 13 million babies aborted each year is by far the highest in the world.
For many, abortion is viewed as the preferred method of birth control, with ubiquitous ads on buses and billboards touting quick, cheap and pain-free abortions. Few people, including Christians, are knowledgeable about life inside the womb or the abortion procedure, a fact attributed to China’s longstanding population control policies.
Yet it’s not just the one-child policy causing women to abort. More and more, single women are aborting, stemming from the clash between the younger generation’s lax view of sex and traditional stigmas against having children out of wedlock.
In the past few years, Chinese Christians are starting to take a stand for life, both by teaching about abortion from the pulpit and working with women to find oftentimes unconventional ways to protect life. Some originally hear the pro-life message from U.S.-based ministries, some through the Internet or overseas teachings, while others are convicted through reading the Bible. From there, the message has spread to tens of thousands of churches around the country, and resulted in mothers holding giggling babies that otherwise wouldn’t be born, women saved from forced abortions and churches growing stronger as they repent and help their own.
Yet few churches in China have heard what the Bible has to say about life, according to the pro-life group China Life Alliance (CLA). And with cultural, governmental and practical roadblocks hindering their message, the Chinese pro-life movement faces monumental challenges.
China’s illegal abortion clinics
Inside a dingy illegal medical clinic in southwest China, a female doctor brags about her experience performing abortions over the course of 40 years both at a hospital and at the clinic where she makes much more money. Next to an ill-lit room lined with thin, musty cots and IV stands, the doctor says it’s a very typical operation. One girl who had eight abortions is fine, the doctor asserts.
While China’s law forbids late-term abortions, the doctor said she would do an abortion regardless of the delivery date, “even if [the baby] comes out crying.” An abortion at three months costs merely 1,000 yuan ($160) and the patient can be in and out of the clinic in two hours.
The doctor opens a locked back room where the abortions are performed. It reeks of chemicals. In one corner stands a rusting operating chair with stirrups, which the doctor quickly walks toward to toss out blood-stained tissues from her last operation, performed on an 18-year-old who was five months pregnant. Tucked between a cot and table is an illegal ultrasound machine covered with a piece of cloth, which the abortionist uses to help determine the sex of the baby, although sex-selective abortions are illegal in China since the preference for sons has skewed the country’s sex ratio.
Authorities secretly appreciate these clinics, said Mark Li (name changed for this story), an American who founded CLA, because they lower the official number of abortions in the country. While the government counts 13 million abortions a year, Li said the actual number with unreported abortions could be as high as 30 million.
In China sex education is not taught in school, as teachers are embarrassed to discuss it. Parents also don’t talk to their families about sex, so children learn from media, including sexually explicit Western movies, music and TV shows. As a result, a large majority of Chinese engage in premarital sex.
For unmarried girls who get pregnant, abortion often seems like the only option. Unwed mothers bring shame to the families, so parents pressure their daughters to abort. If a single woman keeps her baby, she’s without a support system and could lose her job, get kicked out of school, and have difficulty getting married in the future. Also, the child would be unable to get hukou, or household registration that allows people to go to school, travel or get a job.
Placing the child for adoption also is difficult, as the government has restricted private adoptions, leaving only a complicated and arduous legal adoption process. So for many, the only solution is to slip over to a hospital, spend two hours and 1,000 yuan and return back to normal life, or go to an illegal clinic.
Under the one-child policy, married couples often see abortion as their only choice as well. While the law has become less strictly enforced in some areas — with exemptions for ethnic minorities and parents where one is a single child — couples who have a second child are often forced to pay a fine between three and 10 times the average after-tax income in the city where they live. For those who work at government-run workplaces, having a second child leads to job loss, as it sets a bad example for the rest of society. While the government officially bans forced abortions, the practice continues in rural areas where local officials don’t understand the law.
Carrying the message to churches
Even the Chinese church, which has been growing exponentially, has kept silent about abortion. Peter Wang (name changed), a former house church pastor who now spends his time carrying the pro-life message to churches, said he’s met pastors who have participated in abortions themselves or given money to church members to help pay for their abortions. Some pastors keep quiet because they feel that the topic is too sensitive and don’t want another excuse for the government to persecute their church.
But lately the tide is turning, as more Christians see the need for a Chinese pro-life movement. Mark Li started the Christian Life Alliance in 2010 to create a decentralized network of churches and ministries to share the pro-life message and help women keep their babies.
CLA, by linking resources from the experienced pro-life movement in America to leaders of the Chinese church, has equipped local believers to start their own ministries. The group has launched a network of safe houses for pregnant women, abortion rescue teams, a Christian legal aid ministry, a Chinese resource website and a pregnancy help center. Li said that so far about 20,000 churches have heard the pro-life message. Each church that hears the message goes on to save two to five babies a year, he added.
CLA’s on-the-ground work is being done and funded by locals like Sarah Huang (name changed), a cheerful house church leader in her 30s. After almost aborting her son in 2012, she realized the importance of protecting life and started working for CLA. Since then she’s started her own one-woman ministry that has saved several dozen babies.
In a typical afternoon, Huang’s two cell phones ring continuously from mothers needing her help: “What do I do about my second baby?” “I’m pregnant and I don’t have money to take care of this child.” “The officials are forcing me to have an abortion, can you help?”
Most calls deal with one-child policy problems, and Huang assertively douses the fires by challenging churches to help families pay the fine, find safe houses to keep the pregnant woman away from the pressures of relatives, or threaten to report family-planning officials who continue to practice forced abortion. For those who still can’t pay the exorbitant fines, families can have the baby and then buy hukou registration for their child in the black market for a fraction of the official price.
Throughout the sprawling house church networks, leaders are rising up independently of any overseas ministries. Jonny Fan, a 27-year-old at the 500-member Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, saw images of abortion on a blog in 2012 and felt convicted about China’s high abortion rate. For the past three years, Fan and other church members have distributed brochures urging mothers not to abort on June 1, which is Children’s Day. Using his background in marketing, Fan created polished pamphlets explaining the scope of abortion in China, the hope found in the Gospel, and contact information for his church. Last year, he expanded his campaign to include bus ads, and authorities arrested him and a few others for printing unapproved material. This year, Fan printed 50,000 fliers for his church to distribute, and on church member was beaten by police officers for passing out the fliers.
At Early Rain, the focus on protecting life is noticeable in the number of families sitting in the service with two children. Fan said that most of the second children don’t have hukou, and they aren’t sure yet what they will do in the future. Besides buying hukou, families also can wait until the national census, when officials will sometimes register children for free to make their own job easier. One upside is that Early Rain has its own private Christian school and seminary, so the lack of hukou wouldn’t stop them from getting an education.
During the rest of the year, Fan leads a pro-life small group that focuses on educating church members about abortion and has expanded into adoption care. Last year, one church member distributing fliers outside a hospital convinced a young woman to keep her baby. Fan connected her with a family who was willing to adopt the child privately, and he realized this would be the next big need in his ministry.
His June 1 campaign has inspired others to use the day to talk about abortion. This year Peters and Wang started a month-long campaign ending June 1 to train church leaders to spread the word about abortion within their church networks. Wang estimated that about 8,200 pastors preached about abortion in their churches this year.
Fan said that while others have approached him asking about pro-life work, he’s not an expert, he’s just a Christian acting on his convictions.
“I do this because I see China’s rate of abortion is growing too fast; it’s frightening,” Fan said. “This is what I believe: We cannot murder. But Chinese people have sinned in this way. I don’t want to let the next generation live in an environment like this.”
Adapted from WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine (www.worldmag.com). Used by permission. June Cheng is a writer reporting from China. WORLD used pseudonyms to protect the lives of several sources in this article. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).