In 2013 when we were still living in Singapore, our family spent a week in China, touring around. While in Beijing, we took a hutong tour. Hutongs are local neighborhoods of communal houses that share a courtyard in the middle (similar to some neighborhoods in NYC) and neighborhood bathroom halfway down the block, one side for women and one for men (and no private partitions–going to the bathroom in Asia is generally a social affair, the place one goes to gossip with or confide in one’s neighbors and friends). We met with a woman and her family in her home as part of the tour. She was a few years older than me, but we shared one surprising thing in common: we are both the youngest in a family of seven children.

Because her child-bearing years were during China’s One Child Policy which was still in effect when we visited with her (the policy ran from 1979-2015), she only had one child (unlike my three): a daughter. She didn’t have much to say about the policy other than that her daughter was growing up in a world with no siblings, a very different life than hers with such a large family.

I recently watched the acclaimed documentary One Child Nation. It is well worth watching. The policy was implemented when China’s government forecast widespread famine and even cannibalism if the population wasn’t brought under control. Citizens were informed using propaganda including signs on walls, community dance performances, award ceremonies for family planners, and even lunch boxes sporting the slogans. Anyone who attempted to have more than one child was subject to having their belongings taken away and their homes destroyed. Women were forcibly sterilized after being rounded up and trussed like animals. Pregnant women were subject to forced abortions as one community family planner explained, recounting her role as a midwife:

“In those days, women were abducted by government officials, tied up and dragged to us like pigs,” Yuan, the midwife, recalls in the documentary. She describes traveling the country performing sterilizations and abortions, most of which were coerced by family-planning officials. Parents who resisted were detained, their homes demolished, Yuan says. The most haunting scene of the film is wordless—a nearly unbearable sequence of images revealing what appear to be full-term fetuses discarded in garbage heaps.

One byproduct of this policy was the prevalence of female infanticide. The preference for male children to “carry on the name” meant that daughters were less desired and might be abandoned. If nobody claimed them, they often died from exposure. Some were snatched up and sold to adoption clinics by so-called “matchmakers” working independently to save children, but soon enough, family planners who worked for the state, enforcing the policy (including forced abortions and sterilization) began selling these infants themselves after also fining the families for being out of compliance. If twins were born, one was sent to the orphanage to be adopted by a foreigner. This became a huge human trafficking issue. By some accounts, the One Child Policy led to over 330 million abortions in China.

Yuan continues her confession, stating that she performed between 50 and 60 thousand forced abortions and sterilizations:

“I counted this out of guilt, because I aborted and killed babies,” the midwife, Huaru Yuan, continues. “Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it.”

Despite these terrible experiences, most of the adults who lived through the policy and even enforced it on others still defend the policy and see it as ultimately a positive for China. The refrain “policy is policy” is echoed by several of them. Their experience is that the state dictates policy, and individuals cannot choose right or wrong; they are duty-bound to fill the role the state has assigned them, and even their very emotions are handed to them through propaganda. Their moral reasoning is suspended by the authoritarian regime’s decision-making for them. They are convinced that without the policy, there would have been poverty, famine and cannibalism, that China could not survive. Those who attempted to break the policy were seen as foolish traitors threatening the survival of their country, showing disregard for their fellow citizens.

The film concludes with the observation that the film-maker left China for the US where women’s access to abortion is restricted, and that in many ways this is the same problem.

“I’m struck by the irony that I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and I moved to another country where governments restrict abortions,” Wang, who lives in New Jersey, narrates toward the end of the documentary. “On the surface, this seemed like opposites. But both are about taking away women’s control of their own bodies.”

Living and working in Singapore, I found that having three children indicated to others that I was wealthy. I was told there were five “C”s that people were judged on: cash, car, credit card, condo and country club membership, but a few also added children as a sign of one’s affluence. Singapore, like China, had felt their population was out of control for the size of the nation, and they discouraged children, doling out cash incentives for having fewer kids. Unfortunately, it had caught on so much that the population was shrinking too quickly, and that combined with the ability to be wealthier with fewer children created a real problem. To reverse the trend, the government worked with Mentos (yes, the candy) to create a “rap” for National Day to encourage people to make babies.

While China used policy and physical enforcement to reduce the population, Singapore relied on financial incentives to have fewer children, and then reversed with financial incentives to have more children.

Historically, the Church has been mostly conservative, but not truly authoritarian, in its encouragement for LDS families to have many children. It continues to encourage this when speakers at General Conference discourage birth control, encourage early marriage, or talk about replenishing the earth. However, the Church used to be more forceful when it encouraged “unwed” mothers-to-be to put their children up for adoption through LDS Services to increase the number of children being raised by Church families.

This policy in the handbook has undergone a major reversal, however, as detailed by J Stapley at By Common Consent. The new wording at last talks about the woman being the one to make choices about herself and her child:

When you experience unwed pregnancy, you will have to choose one of four options: marriage, adoption, single parenting, or abortion . . . What you choose will depend on your unique circumstances. . .Remember that whatever you decide for you and your child, some people will agree with your decisions and others will not. Every individual’s situation is different, so the answer for one person may not work for another. One thing you can be sure of is that no one will have given as much time, effort, and thought to the unique circumstances of your situation as you and the Lord.

This is a remarkable shift, one that points a woman toward her own moral reasoning, advising her to research, to pray and seek divine inspiration, and also to own her choice even if others disagree, which they inevitably will. In a Church with a terrible history of disregarding women’s choices (polygamy being a HUGE violation of women’s choice); this is a great turnaround in thinking.

  • Do you think the Church is too intrusive about family planning or is it a cultural issue shared by many churches? Does the Church do better or worse than other churches at letting couples make family planning decisions?
  • Do you think the new policy on unwed mothers is designed to respect women’s choices or to prevent single mothers from being barred from church participation or conversion?
  • Does the Church use propaganda? If so, can you cite examples?