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Protection of Conscience Project

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Chinese hospital workers divided over attempts to kill abortion survivor*

Sean Murphy*

. . . significant official pressure was brought to bear on medical staff to force them to act contrary to their conscientious convictions in furtherance of state policy. . . it would not be surprising if the incident . . . caused some of the medical staff to modify their views about abortion, suggesting the likelihood of further conflicts of conscience. . .This also occurs in western democracies . . . and the same question arises in both the east and west; will those health care workers be forced out of their professions?

On 23 April, 2001, Chinese family planning officials took Zhang Chunhong from the village of Wang Ha, on the outskirts of Harbin in Heilongjiang province, to the Daoli District Maternity Hospital in Harbin. An ultrasound scan showed the 31-year-old Zhang was 35-weeks pregnant. Since she already had three boys, she was in violation of state population control policy. Officials decided to terminate the pregnancy, despite the fact that she was past the official 24-week upper limit for abortion.

Nurses injected a saline solution into her uterus the next day, attempting to induce a stillbirth, but the baby was born alive. Zhang Chunhong heard the baby cry as she lay in the operating room and asked to see her child. The nurses refused. Her husband, Zhai Zhicheng, caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a healthy little girl, but was told that staff had been ordered not to give them the baby. One of the nurses told him that, even if she didn't die, the child would be retarded because of the drug used to induce labour. The next day Zhang Chunhong was told that the baby was dead, and the parents returned home.

In fact, the child was still alive. On 25 April hospital director Yuan Yinghua ordered nurse Wang Weimin to starve or freeze her to death by exposing her on the open balcony outside the abortion room. North-east China is still cold in April, and, as the snow fell outside, nurse Wang listened for two hours to the baby's screams before she brought her back inside. The little girl, who was later named Ji Huansheng, became a secret patient in the hospital.

The secret could not be kept from the hospital director, who threatened to fire anyone who fed her. Waiting for director Yuan Yinghua to go home, or taking advantage of times when she was busy, physicians and nurses risked their careers to sneak nourishment to Ji Huansheng. One nurse remarked how the staff were amazed by the strength of the child, but nurse Wang was concerned that Ji Huansheng could not survive indefinitely in the circumstances. She explained that, on 9 May, 2001, when a local TV journalist called, "I decided to tell the journalist the truth because I wanted to give the baby a chance to live."

However, when the journalist arrived, Ji had been hidden. She was found, stuffed inside a sterilization box. Ultimately, the TV station declined to air material that was obviously both shocking and very politically incorrect, but the story was followed up by five newspaper reporters. On 10 May the baby was given clothing, a bottle, food and a cot, but disappeared the day following, apparently taken to the hospital director's office and removed by the hospital's Communist Party Secretary. Fearing for the child's life, journalists called Harbin police, who managed to locate the baby girl and surrender her to her parents two days later.

She was dirty and in poor condition, her weight having fallen from 2.5kg at birth to just 1kg. Her parents named her Ji Huansheng - "brought back to life by journalists" - in honour of the reporters who had saved her life. The peasant family will be burdened with a fine of up to 60,000 renminbi (about £5,000), which they must pay if they do not want Ji Huangsheng to be an unregistered "black child", ineligible for state welfare and education.

A consequence of the incident was a split in hospital staff. Some, who had been threatened with pay cuts or, perhaps, feared for their careers, physically forced journalists out of the hospital. Others petitioned for the removal of the director, Yuan Yinghua. On 25 May, a dozen hospital staff made a formal complaint to the police. The London Independent asked for an interview with the head of Daoli district public security bureau, but was refused on the grounds that the case was "still under investigation."

The acceptance of late term and 'live birth' abortion in the medical community in North America (Baby left to die at Vancouver General Hospital ; Born alive, left to die (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.) and the response of Canadian authorities in analogous situations (Foothills Hospital Now Forces Nurses To Participate In Genetic Terminations) suggests that the treatment of Ji Huangsheng will not give rise to legal sanctions. It is more likely that authorities will adopt preventative measures to prevent similar situations from arising in future: for example, injecting potassium chloride into the heart of a foetus in utero to ensure death before the induction of labour.

In any case, the story from The London Independent illustrates two points of interest from the perspective of freedom of conscience.

First: significant official pressure was brought to bear on medical staff to force them to act contrary to their conscientious convictions in furtherance of state policy. (See Chinese health care workers and the 'one-child' policy) From from being unique to China, similar pressures are growing in western democracies. (See Contradicting state policy may lead to jail in the U.K.; European Court ruling ghettoizes religious belief in Europe; other items under Repression of Conscience and Examining the Issues: Background)

Second: it would not be surprising if the incident at the Daoli District Maternity Hospital caused some of the medical staff to modify their views about abortion, suggesting the likelihood of further conflicts of conscience. This also occurs in western democracies (for example, Nurse refused employment, forced to resign) and the same question arises in both the east and west; will those health care workers be forced out of their professions?


*From Calum and Lijia MacLeod-The baby girl that they just couldn't kill - The London Independent, 24 September 2001

 

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