07/17/2012 02:41 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2012

Chinese Villager Caught in US Abortion Debate

When Chinese writer Zhao Chu saw pictures of Feng Jianmei lying dazed beside the bloody body of her seven month-old fetus earlier this month, he took to his microblog to express his horror, evoking the unheard "tears and cries" of Feng and other victims of forced abortions. Countless others did the same, as the graphic images provoked a national outrage in China that has spread around the world. Remarkably, Feng's story has also been adopted in the United States as a battle cry -- by both sides of the abortion debate.

The uproar began in China over the abortion that Chinese family planning authorities forced on the 23-year-old from Shaanxi Province after they learned she had become pregnant with a second child. China's central government has since punished local officials involved in the incident and announced a national investigation into family planning oversight.

Meanwhile, in the United States, pro-lifers have begun to make a series of surprising arguments using Feng's story to attack U.S. policy. At the National Right to Life Convention, held in Washington, Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) lectured on the horrors of China's one-child policy, emphasizing forced abortions. Carol Tobias, the National Right to Life Foundation's president, also spoke on the subject, concluding her remarks by saying, "Obamacare has already established that contraception is mandatory preventative care. I have no doubt that abortion will be a mandated preventative care service too."

What is the connection between Feng and these concerns? For many conservatives, Feng represents the kind of "federally endorsed" abortions that they fear may lie in store for the United States. China, at least as it appears in their references to Feng's story, isn't just a bogeyman to rile up the base. The remarkable implication of their claims is that it's actually the pro-life dystopia that they are seeking to prevent -- though whether this argument holds water is another matter.

Of course, in most ways, Feng Jianmei's case has little to do with policy outside China. And even within China, the issue itself isn't even so much abortion per se, but rather the late-term nature of the case and the gruesome images circulating on the Internet. Reactions have connected the problem to a range of sensitive domestic issues: the one-child policy, the urban-rural divide, and the corruption of local officials, to pick only three. Her individual tragedy has captured the public imagination in China because it exemplifies broader systemic issues.

"The controversial policy has become a profit-oriented activity that everyone hates," wrote Zhao Chu. "The worst victims are those low-class rural people who have no power to fight."

Initiated in 1979 alongside Deng Xiaoping's program of "reform and opening" the Chinese economy, limits on population growth were intended to promote China's economic development. Nowadays, getting an exception to the policy can simply be a matter of money (although in some rural areas, multiple children are permitted). In the case of a late-stage second pregnancy in her part of China, the law calls for Feng to deliver the baby and then be subject to punishment. But Feng and her husband were told that they had to pay 40,000 yuan (nearly $6,300, an enormous sum for an average Chinese family) to avoid the forced abortion.

"[Local officials] were using this money to exchange for the baby's life," Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan said in an interview. "This is obviously immoral by the government."

To an American audience, it may seem surprising that Feng's tragedy has produced critiques of social and political issues rather than of abortion. Abortion -- when it is done safely and consensually -- hasn't become the kind of loaded issue in China that it is in the United States. Professor Zhang contrasted Chinese attitudes toward abortion with those in "traditional Christian countries," where abortion is the center of contentious debates. "We come from opposite ends on this issue," he said.

For now, say anti-abortion activists. With Obama in office and now the passage of the Affordable Care Act, pro-lifers are arguing that the U.S. is headed straight for the cavalier approach to abortion that they see in China. The argument's a long shot -- especially since, under the ACA, states retain the power to have no plans that include abortion coverage both for state plans and for Medicaid -- but that hasn't stopped pro-life leaders from spreading the word. In April, Rep. Smith claimed that the ACA contains an "abortion surcharge and a secrecy clause" that forces "pro-life Americans ... to pay for other people's abortions." The Department of Health and Human Services has issued several press releases to push back against these allegations.

And yet Feng represents a perhaps more mainstream concern for many pro-life activists too. Pro-lifers have begun making the case that between hasty doctor recommendations and societal pressure, many women are essentially forced to choose abortions, blindfolded or not. They cite injustices like Paula Stryker's, a Catholic, who received a poor prenatal diagnosis at seven months pregnant and whose doctor never gave her option of carrying the child to term. More commonly, they say, for poor women who choose to have an abortion, the cost of having the child may be as prohibitive as the PRC tax.

Pro-choice activists have also found Feng's tragedy a compelling case. Feng Jianmei should have been granted the right to choose life, they say, because she should have been granted a choice in the first place. A grassroots online petition to "tell Chinese lawmakers to give poor women the right to choose" has garnered nearly 14,000 signatures since mid-June. Whether pro-choice or pro-life, both sides agree that the background circumstances of Feng Jianmen's story are wrong.

China has increasingly become part of the conversation in U.S. abortion debate -- much to the chagrin of some liberal politicians, who cite conservative references to atrocities in China as incendiary tactics. In May, for example, conservatives proposed the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, a bill which would have criminalized sex-selective abortions. The measure, which Obama opposed and which failed to pass Congress, was filled with references to the dire social consequences of gender imbalances in China, the result of preference for boys under the one-child policy. But conservatives were not able to make the case that so-called "gendercide" is a widespread issue in the United States.

Between Obama's decision not to support the bill and Biden's remarks at Sichuan University last year that he "fully understands" China's one-child policy, conservatives have depicted the Obama administration's attitude towards abortion both at home and abroad as grossly inhumane.

Tobias shared her thoughts on Biden's remarks with the convention. "I thought to myself, this man needs to meet the Wizard of Oz, because he needs a heart, a brain, and a backbone." The audience cheered, waving their pocket-sized American flags back and forth into the air in agreement.

Romney, who had called China's one-child policy "barbaric" in February, also spoke at the conference via video address. He reiterated his commitment, if elected, to "cut off funding for the United Nations Population Fund" on the grounds that it "supports China's abhorrent One Child Policy." A U.S. State Department investigation in 2002 confirmed that the UNFPA provides no support for involuntary abortions.