Junkfood Science: Reflections on today’s news — from the food for thought file…

November 17, 2008

Reflections on today’s news — from the food for thought file…

This news story isn’t about food or weight, chronic diseases of aging or pharmaceuticals, or which unsound initiative our healthcare resources will be squandered on next. This is a story being followed by Uyghur Human Rights Project in China, and reported by Radio Free Asia and China Digital Times, that is so heart wrenching, disturbing and soul-searching on so many different levels, it deserves to be known beyond China’s borders.

It’s unimaginable how much fear and anguish this young woman and her family must be feeling. Looking deeper into this story revealed that she is not alone.

A young Muslim mother who is six months pregnant with her third child had escaped over the weekend from government officials who had taken her to a small municipal hospital, Water Gate Hospital, where they had forced her to sign forms to have an abortion against her will. She ran while the guard went to get dinner, wearing only her slippers, a shirt, and a sleeveless jacket, her husband said. She didn’t even take her bag or her other clothing. The village chief and party secretary took her husband and made him take them to the homes of her parents and relatives, and was told that if she wasn’t found, “they would take our house and our farmland,” he said.

This young women, Arzigul Tursun, was hunted down by police and after an all-night search has been taken under guard to a larger hospital in China [Municipal Watergate Hospital in Yining] and her forced abortion is planned for 8 pm, according to her husband. She turned herself in after her husband was threatened by officials that their home and property would be seized if she did not have an abortion. “We considered our two girls,” her husband was quoted saying in the Herald Sun. “If the house and properties were taken away, how would they live? So my wife came back and went to the hospital.”

The nonprofit human rights organization, Uyghur Human Rights Project in China, and Radio Free Asia reported yesterday [follow links to full stories]:

Their experience sheds rare light on how China's one-child policy is enforced in remote parts of the country through fines, financial incentives, and heavy-handed coercion by zealous local officials eager to meet population targets set by cadres higher up… The government also uses financial incentives and disincentives to keep the birthrate low. Couples can also pay steep fines to have more children, although the fines are well beyond most people's means. The official Web site China Xinjiang Web reports that in Kashgar, Hotan, and Kizilsu, areas populated almost entirely by Uyghurs, women over 49 with only one child are entitled to a one-time payment of 3,000 yuan (U.S. $440), with the couple receiving 600 yuan (U.S. $88) yearly afterward… The one-child policy is enforced more strictly in cities, but penalties for exceeding a family's quota can be severe, including job losses, demotions, or expulsion from the Party, experts say.

According to China's official Tianshan Net, its population control policies in Xinjiang have resulted in the forced abortions of about 3.7 million babies over the last 30 years.

The significance of this story has nothing to do with our personal views about abortion. This is about poor, minority women being forced against their will, without freely giving informed consent, to be sterilized and abort their babies; about women having no rights to control their own bodies and reproduction or any rights to choose. It also reveals larger implications of the full coercive powers of government.

Looking through the medical literature for background information, an article in a 2002 issue of the journal Lancet, discussed several independent investigations into China’s population program. As a result of a 2001 investigation by Population Research Institute documenting human rights abuses, forced sterilizations and abortions and some two decades of support and praise of the program by the UNFPA, the Bush Administration had sent out another independent panel to investigate. It confirmed that government programs working alongside the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) were continuing to “retain coercive elements in law and practice.” That, along with an interagency review, led then Secretary of State Colin Powel to recommend that the U.S. government stop funding the UNFPA because of its “support of and involvement in China’s population planning activities allows the Chinese government to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion.” As the Lancet reported:

The [interagency] analysis noted, for example, that UNFPA provided funds for computers and data-processing equipment that allow government officials to track all women of childbearing age, to issue “birth-not allowed” notices, and to impose “social compensation fees” on couples who decide to have more children than allowed by government policy. These fees are typically several times the couples’ annual income.

According to the journal, the U.S. had been funding the UNFPA about $34 million/year (12.5% of its annual budget). Using the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which states that no U.S. funds “may be made available to any organization or program which, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization,” the Administration ceased funding the program because of its support for China’s one-child policy that included documented coercive abortion. Contentious statements have been issued on both sides of the political debates, but to date, the U.S. government is not financing the UN program.

Population Research Institute, which had sent an investigative team to China on September 27, 2001, has made its report available and it’s a somber look at the reality of life for Chinese women of childbearing age left with no choices. The PRI report shares the women’s own stories and starkly illustrates that their sterilizations and abortions were not voluntary. The investigators had talked with local family planning officials and interviewed dozens of victims and witnesses of coercion even just within Sihui county, one of many where family planning services operate under UNFPA, and they documented what was happening with photographs and videos. According to Sihui residents, in the county’s family planning program:

Coercion is as bad today as it has ever been. Forced abortions, forced sterilization, and forced use of Depro Provera, IUDs and other forms of birth control are routine. The punishment for noncompliance includes crippling fines, destruction of homes, and imprisonment of women and their relatives. Voluntary family planning is non-existent.

In story after story, women reported being ordered to have an abortion or undergo sterilization after the birth of a second child, or they were punished by having their homes destroyed. Other women fled to save their pregnancies from forced abortion and were living in hiding. A father of one woman who had refused to submit to an abortion said local officials had punished the family and sent out crews with jack hammers and destroyed his home and those of two other family members. “Nine of the woman’s family members had been imprisoned and they had been forced to pay fines to win their release.” The fines were 17,000 RMB, equal to about three years of wages. The future for the mother and her baby will be filled with continued repercussions, according to the PRI report:

She told us of the additional fines that must be paid if her son is to be eligible for medical care, schooling or employment in the future. At present, she described her little boy as a "black child," that is, an unregistered and illegal person, who does not exist in the eyes of the state. Many of those we interviewed told us of the problems experienced by "black children," who are punished for being born without a permit.

Another woman video taped by the investigators said:

I was four-and-a-half months pregnant. They wanted me to report to the hospital for an abortion but I refused to go. I went into hiding in my mother's village. Then my brother, my older sister, and my younger sister were all arrested. I had no choice but to go somewhere else to hide. They arrested three people in my mother's family but didn't destroy any homes. They arrested six people in my mother-in-law's family and destroyed three homes.

Reporting on two other UNFPA county programs, the investigators reported that the population control regulations of Fujian Province, which are enforced without exception in all counties, call for:

● Mandatory use of IUDs.

Mandatory quarterly exams.

Fines of 50 yuan per day, and 2,000 yuan per month imposed for non-compliance with mandatory examinations.

Forced sterilization after six months of non-compliance with exam.

● Mandatory registration of child within one month after birth of child, punishable with forced sterilization for non-compliance.

Forced abortion, forced sterilization and 10,000 yuan fine for pregnancy before age 20.

In Xinjiang Province, particularly in rural areas like Kuerle county, local family planning officials frequently resort to brute force… Abuses include:

● Forced abortion.

● Forced sterilization.

● Forced abortion and forced sterilization under imprisonment.

The report outlines the history of China’s one-child policy by the first American social scientist who lived in a Chinese village during the late 1970s and early 1990s, and who has gone back periodically, following and witnessing the government’s family planning policies in action. During the 1980s, he said, the government relaxed its one-child policy in response to rising levels of female infanticide and allowed couples to have a second child if their first one was a girl. Today, women are forbidden to marry until age 23 and if they become pregnant out of wedlock, they are forced to have abortions.

A newly-married couple is given one quota, or permission to bear one child. Upon the birth of their first child, endless “precautions” begin to prevent a second birth. If their first child is female, they may have a second child with permission from authorities. This is called “rational second birth.” Unconditional sterilization follows to rule out further births.

It goes without saying that certain methods of enactment are indispensable to the policy. Zhou told us that in each of the four villages within the township – Xiaohanzhuang, Xiaonianzhuang, Xiaojinzhuang and Xilanzhai – homes that housed families with more than one child had been razed to the ground by bulldozers. Village Planned Birth officials brought all child-bearing-age women to the homes to bear witness to the destruction. This method… is akin to practices of public executions and public sentencing rallies. The second cadre we spoke with confirmed the method of destroying homes. In Dongtaizi Village, a second birth took place and the family received a monetary penalty of 147,000 RMB, a sum they were unable to pay. Village cadres pitied them and lessened the penalty to 30,000 RMB under the condition that should another family follow their example, the full amount would befall the entire village. When a family produces an “over-birth,” the entire village is often penalized with heavy fines…

When a woman receives a second-birth permit, she must pledge to be sterilized immediately following the second birth. If she refuses to do so, police and courts have the right to become involved, resulting in possible monetary fines and property confiscation among other punishments.

The investigators learned from family planning officials and residents that the population control program uses a network of paid informants to report unauthorized pregnancies of neighbors, family and friends. Officials “conduct nighttime raids on couples suspected of having unauthorized children, and they keep detailed records on the sexual activity of every woman in their jurisdiction,” the report stated. And even the family planning centers themselves have prison cells—with bars—to detain those who resist forced abortion or sterilization.

In an investigative report written by Laogai Research Foundation in October 1999, a young woman who was a teacher before being hired by a wool mill in Xinjiang, narrated her story. Her husband was a computer scientist, trained at Northwestern Polytechnic University in the United States, and had taught physics at Xinjiang Normal University. When she became pregnant with their second child, officials at her company told her she couldn’t have the child and must have an abortion because she wasn’t allowed to get pregnant until her first child was 3 under the Party’s planned birth policy. Company officials repeatedly harassed her and she spoke with her boss many times requesting permission to have her child. She insisted that because she was of Uzbek nationality, she was allowed to have a second child under the National Minority Policy, besides the fact she was already 5 months pregnant and it went against her religious faith to have an abortion. She said they didn’t care and went on to say:

My husband also wrote letters to my unit requesting that they give me a chance. At the same time, he went to the Autonomous Region’s Urumqi City Planned Birth Office, requesting that they give me a “birth quota.” But, all our endeavors turned out to be futile. During the whole process more than one month passed. Finally, my unit decided to take me by force to the hospital for an abortion. I was then six and a half months pregnant. My husband had appealed to all possible units and people, including bosses in our respective units, requesting that they permit an innocent life to be born into this world. But, all of them rejected his pleas. They said, “If you don’t do what we want, we’ll suspend your wages, cancel your bonuses, levy a 2,500 RMB penalty on you, suspend all benefits you are enjoying now. And your child will never have a residence permit. He’ll be a nobody.” This actually meant I would lose my job. They tried to dissuade me in such ignominious ways, economically and administratively. We thought about this and decided, whatever they resort to, we must keep our child.

Nevertheless, reality was too cruel. In Xinjiang, the Communist Party exercises not only dictatorial rule, but rampant racial discrimination. The Communists periodically carry out “red terror.” I am a woman of the Uzbek national minority with a population of only thousands. But, they wanted me to have an abortion. Xinjiang, or Eastern Turkestan, is the land where we have lived for generations upon generations. On this land, we do not enjoy even minimal rights. They even decide how and when we can give birth to children. They do whatever they want. If I had lost my job at that time, I would have no chance to find another. My husband’s monthly salary was 380 RMB ($45). We lived a very simple life. We did not have thousands of dollars to pay to them. We had to survive….

On July 15th, 1990, at 2:00 PM, my work unit sent a Nissan van to my home. BAI Li of my unit’s planned birth office, YING Fengying, the trade union chairperson, and XU Jun, a trade union staff member, came to my home. They escorted me to #1 Hospital attached to the Xinjiang Medical School for “impulsive artificial abortion surgery.” I was in tears. The next morning, at 10:00 AM, a health checkup was done. One of the physicians who checked me said, “Your child is very healthy and big.” After the check-up, I was administered a kind of drug. About an hour later, I was sent to the obstetrician surgical room. My husband was kept outside. I was put on an operating table. Two nurses were standing on either side of me. An obstetrician was about to give me a shot. I saw the needle was thick, about 10 centimeters long, and asked the obstetrician on which part of my body she would administer the shot. She told me it would go through my abdomen. Terrified, I thought the shot was going directly into my child’s body, because my child was struggling fiercely in my abdomen. At that moment, I panicked and thought I must keep my child at any cost. I told the obstetrician, “Doctor, don’t give me the shot. I want to go home. I want my child!” I started calling for my husband. But the two nurses started pressing my arms with all their might. One of the nurses said ferociously, “Who told you to get pregnant! Who told you not to act according to the planned birth policy!” I was struggling and crying. But still, the needle went into the right side of my abdomen… Some time later, in agony, I found my child was no longer struggling. That was the most painful moment in my life. I hated the “medical personnel” bitterly. They tarnished the most noble and humanitarian profession in the world… [The rest is too graphic and anguished, but it and others can be read in the full report.]

In response to the 2001 PRI investigative report, U.S. Congressman Christopher H. Smith Vice-Chairman of the House International Relations Committee had written:

I do not even know if we can comprehend what goes through a young woman’s mind as she sits in the waiting room of the government family planning clinic knowing that her entire future and employment situation—and that of her family is dependant on the government ordered death of her unborn child. The terror of forced abortion is a human rights abuse of the greatest magnitude….

CNS News reported that the most recent U.S. State Department report on human rights in China reported: “The government continue[s] its coercive birth limitation policy, in some cases resulting in forced abortion and sterilization.”

News of Arzigul Tursun revealed that. The Uyghur Human Rights Project reported today that two members of the U.S. Congress have called on Chinese officials to release Arzigul and cancel her forced abortion. Rep. Chris Smith of the Executive Commission on China put in a personal appeal to Chinese ambassador Zhou Werzhong. The UHRP and other human rights groups said they will be watching closely what happens to her and her family and following this story. Because of this international attention to her situation, her abortion appears to be on hold.

What if no one has asked the right question?

Since the beginning of time, one of the clearest markers of an enlightened society has been the moral status it attaches to human life. — Dr. Frank Furedi

Simple human compassion and medical ethics, alone, make this story difficult. The discriminatory aspects of world population control policies focused on the poor, minorities and women, and the hints of eugenics, are undeniably troubling. But this story hasn’t received the interest and elicited the reactions among the public that it might, prehaps because no one, not one single news story, has stopped to even consider that all of this horror may be unfounded in the first place and based more on ideologies and scare mongering than sound scientific evidence. Is world overpopulation really threatening to end life as we know it, lead to mass famine, destruction of the planet and devastation of the environment?

Our children have been taught that overpopulation is a crisis and mainstream media endlessly repeats that the planet cannot sustain the predicted population growth. These beliefs have become so fervently promoted and believed that drastic measures — like mass sterilization — have come to be seen as legitimate, necessary and justified. How many have stopped to even question if they're true?

According to Dr Frank Furedi, sociology professor at the University of Kent and author of Population and Development and of the Culture of Fear, they aren’t. “It’s important to realize that there is always a disjuncture between the perception of population density and the reality,” he said. “The reason why so many Westerners regard Asia as a continent of teeming masses is because people feel very uncomfortable with Asians. The reality, of course, is that Belgium has got a higher population density than China. You’ll find that many Western societies have far higher population densities than Asian or African societies. But we don't talk about those insects in Belgium, those teeming masses. The reason for that is that we're quite comfortable with those people.” The Netherlands, for example, has a population density three times that of China (395 versus 136 people per square kilometer). Population density and population growth hasn’t meant fewer trees, as there are 30% more trees across Europe today than there were 50 years ago. As education and economic prosperity increases, technological development rise; more food is grown more efficiently on less land, preserving more wildlife habitat; air and water becomes cleaner; and women and families have more opportunities which leads to smaller families.

We talk of protecting human rights and we often go to extraordinary lengths to keep a premature baby alive and save a life, but alongside this, contemporary society appears disconnected from its own humanity, said Dr. Furedi. “To put it bluntly: it is difficult to celebrate human life in any meaningful way when people – or at least the growth of the number of people – are regarded as the source of the world’s problems. Alongside today’s respect for human life there is the increasingly popular idea that there is too much human life around, and that it is killing the planet.”

As Dr. Furedi wrote in a commentary responding to an article in the British Medical Journal calling for doctors to encourage population control, the idea that there’s too many people inhabiting the globe has been promoted for centuries. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) had a catastrophic vision of population growth as causing the economic collapse of society. During the nineteenth century, predictions warned that population growth would lead to famine, starvation and death. “Today’s cultural pessimists have raised the stakes: they denounce population growth as a threat to biodiversity and the very existence of the planet,” he wrote. Newborn babies have become a threat to the environment and every life consuming precious resources. Large families are castigated as being environmentally irresponsible and “now discussed as an eco-crime on par with pollution.”

Throughout history, different cultures have celebrated birth as a unique moment, signifying the joy of life. The reinterpretation of a new birth as ‘greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour’ speaks to today’s degraded imagination, where carbon-reduction has become the supreme moral imperative. Once every newborn baby is dehumanised in this way – represented as little more than a professional polluter who is a ‘potent source of greenhouse gas emissions’ – then it becomes difficult for people to read the BMJ without nodding along in agreement.

If the birth of a baby is regarded as an unnecessary and unacceptable burden on the carrying capacity of the planet, then it’s only a matter of time before a child’s very existence will be regarded as a threat.

The problem is, Malthus’ alarmist warnings of a “ticking population bomb” have proven to be unfounded, wrote Dr. Furedi. They were based on straight line mathematical projections that failed to account for progress and technological advances. Food production, for example, has increased much in line with population growth and his predictions of global famine never happened. In fact, even the UN population projections have been revised downwards for decades and the planet isn’t overpopulated or facing a crisis. Just as it wasn’t in the 1700s. This is why sound science and solid facts matter. Lives and our humanity are at stake.

The repeated failures of centuries of dire predictions hasn’t deterred population control advocates, said Dr. Furedi, they simply invent new reasons. “Over the past two centuries, a bewildering array of problems has been blamed on population growth. At various times, famine, poverty, the failure of Third World economies, instability, revolution, the spread of communism and the subordinate position of women have been linked to population growth.” Such simplistic and flawed methodology has even been used to account for the emergence of discontented, unemployed masses of terrorists. Everything has been blamed on doomsday, pessimistic warnings of population growth, all to support the need for population control measures. Writing in Spiked, he said:

You don’t have to be a sophisticated student of global politics to see through the simplistic and opportunistic arguments on security put forward by the new Malthusians. But then, the success of Malthusianism has never been down to the [scientific] rigour or eloquence of its ideas. Rather, the success of Malthusian ideas depends on the strength of cultural pessimism at any given time. And today it is the loss of faith in the human potential, a fatalistic view of the future, which has rejuvenated the population-control crusade…

Over the past two centuries, [Malthus’] followers have often tried to discourage people from the ‘wrong’ classes and the ‘wrong races’ from procreating – yet despite their prejudices they continued to affirm the special status of the human species (or at least certain sections of it). In some instances – for example, during the rise of the eugenic movement – rabid prejudice against so-called racial inferiors was combined with a belief in human progress.

By contrast, today’s Malthusians share all the old prejudices and in addition they harbour a powerful sense of loathing against the human species itself. Is it any surprise, then, that some of them actually celebrate non-existence? The obsession with natural limits distracts society from the far more creative search for solutions to hunger or poverty or lack of resources. Worse still, by calling into question the special quality of the human, the population-control lobby seeks to corrode people’s confidence in their ability to tackle the problems of the future. Human life should always be treated as precious and special. How can there possibly be too many of us?

But when we don’t stop to look past our beliefs and prejudices, we can fail to see the full reality and horror of what we’re doing and supporting, and what has been happening to millions of women against their will.

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