The birth in Shenzhen of a child with physical abnormalities has reignited the debate about prenatal screening and abortion in China.
Five ultrasound examinations, including a 3D examination, failed to detect that the baby girl is missing an ear and a nostril and has one eye closed. The child’s mother, Youping Lin, is reported to be suffering from clinical depression as a result, and an independent investigation is underway to decide whether the hospital is responsible.
Termination of pregnancy due to birth defects is permitted in China at any stage of the pregnancy, and most of the debate on social media has centered on who is to blame for the failure to detect the abnormality: “The fact that the doctor said the unborn child was normal, even while the right side of the face was blocked by its hand, shows that they had a low sense of responsibility; that was just wishful thinking,” is a typical quote reported on whatsonweibo.com.
However this brings into focus Chinese attitudes to disability. Disabled children are still seen as a source of shame, and people with disabilities are rarely seen on the streets except as beggars. Despite strong legal protection of their rights, disabled children and adults are often subject to physical and sexual abuse; in 2013 pictures of a mentally ill boy chained up like a dog caused worldwide shock and condemnation. This also raises questions about children’s rights to privacy, with a photograph of the Shenzhen baby having been widely shared on social media. We have chosen not to use this picture.
Screening for gender selection is illegal, but reputedly widespread, with boys traditionally being preferred to girls, and the “one child policy” exacerbating this effect. This has led to a gender imbalance described by Chinese health authorities as “the most serious and prolonged” in the world. 114 boys are born for every 100 girls, and many men in rural areas have been forced to offer extravagant “betrothal gifts” to the families of young women in a bid to find a bride. However a recent report suggested that this trend is reversing, with the two child policy recasting the “ideal family” as one boy and one girl. This does not though mean that parents are more likely to let nature take its course. China Daily quotes one mother as saying “If it were a boy, I don’t think we would keep it,” an attitude which might be considered disturbing to western sensibilities.