Secretary Clinton Should Raise Issue of China's One Child Policy in Beijing

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will mark the fifteenth anniversary of her speech at the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 . Then-First Lady Clinton's remarkable speech represented one of the loudest, clearest calls for all nations to uphold women's rights, and to recognize that "women's rights are human rights." There is much for Secretary Clinton to celebrate this Friday as she reflects upon the progress the world has made towards realizing the goals set at the conference in Beijing fifteen years ago. But the work that began in Beijing is far from finished. One striking example of the continued abuse of women's human rights has remained largely unchanged since 1995, despite the fact that it affects one-fifth of the world's women: China's One Child Policy.

Many in the US are reticent to speak out against the egregious human rights violations associated with China's coercive implementation of the One Child Policy. Somehow discussion of the Chinese policy has become entangled in our nation's own toxic debate over abortion rights. Both sides of the US debate have hijacked the issue, injecting it into domestic disputes over US funding of family planning and women's health programs abroad. Specifically, both sides have a tendency to blur the distinction between the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits US funding of programs that support or participate in forced abortions and forced sterilizations, and the so-called "Global Gag Rule," which denies US funding to programs that perform, promote, or provide counseling on abortion--forced or voluntary. Unfortunately for China's women, both pro-life and pro-choice groups have at times conflated support of or opposition to one as support of or opposition to the other, confusing the American public, who now often view the One Child Policy through the lens of the contentious US abortion debate. The One Child Policy, however, is not a pro-choice or pro-life issue. Limiting the freedom to decide when to start a family and what size that family will be goes against international family planning norms and values as outlined in the 1994 Cairo Conference on International Population Control and Development--a document to which China is signatory. Moreover, arbitrarily detaining family members of One Child Policy violators, forcibly inserting IUDs (birth control devices), and forcibly performing abortion and sterilization surgeries--all well-documented methods of enforcing the One Child Policy--are clear violations of human rights.

In my work with the Laogai Research Foundation I have heard numerous stories from women in China whose lives have been forever changed by the brutal enforcement of the One Child Policy; brave women who have risked further persecution by sharing their stories. Zhou Xiaoping is one of these courageous women. She and her husband were farmers in rural Hunan Province when, in 2001, Ms. Zhou became pregnant with her second child. Ms. Zhou had actually been approved to have this second child; local regulations stipulated that, if a couple's first-born was female, they could apply to have a second child after four years. Ms. Zhou had dutifully waited four years, and the local family planning office had removed her IUD, but Ms. Zhou became pregnant before the government had finished processing her application for a birth permit. With no birth permit, Ms. Zhou was told she would have to abort the pregnancy. Wanting to keep the child, the couple fled to Sichuan Province where they begged in the streets with their young daughter to survive. Soon after the family left, local officials confiscated their few possessions--some furniture and 1500 kilograms of rice.

Ms. Zhou gave birth to her second child in hiding. Soon after the birth of her second child Ms. Zhou became pregnant with her third child and gave birth to him, too, in secret. Then in 2003--eight years after the Beijing conference and one year after China passed new family planning legislation that was meant to end the human rights abuses associated with the policy--Ms. Zhou was kidnapped, drugged, and forcibly sterilized by family planning officials. The officials threatened to forcibly sterilize her husband as well if the couple did not pay an exorbitant fine. The homeless family collected donations from friends and relatives, but still could not find enough money to pay the fine. They were forced to flee once again. In 2008 the family escaped to Thailand. They have applied for asylum in the United States, but no decision has been made on their application to date. Throughout this ordeal, Ms. Zhou's three children have been unable to attend school, unable to live and play without fear.

In her speech in Beijing in 1995, First Lady Clinton said, "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." In a letter written in 2005, Senator Clinton urged President Bush to condemn the One Child Policy during his upcoming visit to China. I hope that Secretary of State Clinton will stand equally firm today and publicly raise the issue of human rights abuses associated with the One Child Policy in China. One fifth of the world's women deserve better.