Human Rights Day : Justice for Two Girls Who Suffered Forced Hysterectomy

Author: WRIC Jing Zhang                Dec 10, 2005             Translated by Qing Zhang   Dec 10,2013


As the world celebrates Human Rights Day this, December 10th, we hope to draw attention to two girls whose reproductive rights have been violated. By recognizing their plight as a modern and urgent one, and by adding our voices to those of other protestors, we can prevent such violence from being repeated.


In April, 2005, in China’s Nantong government-administered welfare institute, two women, dubbed Lan Lan and Lin Lin, were forced to undergo hysterectomies, an unofficial procedure that the director of the institute ordered without consent from either girl and without telling the public. A sympathetic doctor who was present blew the whistle, forcing the director to give an explanation. He said, “both girls have experienced menarche, which caused them such pain that they often cried out at night; to deal with this constantly would have been extremely inconvenient, and when they’re sexually mature it would have added another degree of inconvenience”. “Besides,” he said, “they’re mentally disabled—no one should even be talking about reproductive rights!” Other workers stated unequivocally that the institute was “doing a service to the public”.


What a claim to make! It is clearly outrageous to say that neural difference implies fewer rights, and that orphans that are different mentally have somehow forfeit their right to their own bodies, whose organs are suddenly subject to removal. In the eight weeks that have passed since their operations, the Chinese law enforcement apparatus has blocked any further information from being released: the two women have been sequestered from the public eye, and the media have stopped covering the incident.



Nantong government-administered welfare institute’s family portrait. The family portrait consists of both young and old because they were amalgamated into one institution.



Seven Other Children Forced to Undergo the Same Procedure


What is harder to believe is that the Nantong child welfare institute has performed similar procedures on six other girls.


A social worker who’d been at the institute for over 20 years, Mou Wang (an alias), reported to the Southern Metropolis Daily that since 1980, there have been several incidents of Nantong Welfare Institute doctors performing hysterectomies on mentally disabled women, against their will. “This is a well-kept secret inside the Welfare Institute; in the past they’ve always handled it that way”. Among those forced to undergo the surgery, four are still living: their names are Qin Wang (now in her thirties), Honghong (now in her thirties),  Wanghou Zhu (now in her fifties), and Datou (in her thirties). Three others, named Meigou Jing, Tou Mu and Meihua Zhang, have all passed away. The names of all the women have been changed. Wang says, “After Meihua’s hysterectomy, the removal of her uterus, I stayed in the hospital and helped to look after her for a while, so I remember very clearly. The pain she was in kept her up all night, she was crying, it was very difficult to look at.”


“The women who had their uteruses removed are not suffering from ‘menstrual pains’, nor do they all ‘lack the ability to take care of themselves’, despite what Guilin Jia, department head, claims,” she says.


“Qin Wang could play the harmonica. Whenever you passed by, if you sang ‘Mama’s kisses are honey kisses’ [a popular Chinese song], she’d immediately join in,” Wang said. “Hong Hong is thirty right now and is very high functioning, carrying her own water from a well. Datou is even smarter, every day she takes a chair to the doorway and sits, and if a social worker walks by, she’ll shake his or her hand and smile.”


What was before a private orphanage and has been transformed into a state-run welfare institute was established on March 6, 2004, and now houses 74 orphans, among whom half have mental disabilities. Supposing half were female (a conservative estimate, since there are usually more girls than boys in orphanages), how many have had their uteruses removed because of “first onset of menstrual bleeding,” and how many more are condemned to a similar procedure in the future? If the “considerations” that these government-appointed guardians have made for the women are really lawful and ethical, then what will happen in to the 54000 children that are raised, in total, by other orphanages and welfare institutes in China?


The assistant-director of Nantong’s Chengdong hospital said: other places also do this practice, the only difference is that they haven’t drawn the attention. I alone know of two cases”.


People likely haven’t forgotten that in 1995, BBC and the New York Times published an exposé of Shanghai’s Child Welfare Institute’s mistreatment of children, where malnourished, bony children were tied to chairs with holes cut into the bottom so that they could defecate. These children were robbed of their dignity.


Service Worker Mindsets are Blatantly at Odds with the Law


The newly built, 14 million dollar Nantong child welfare institute appeared to offer much better living conditions, facilities, and amenities than those of institutes. It employed government-trained workers who were specially appointed to care for abandoned children. One would have hoped that these employees were trained and prepared to deal with a few “inconveniences”, in fact, it seems obvious that such “inconveniences” are precisely what the job requires them to diagnose and treat. A similar situation would be one in which a doctor of internal medicine, because of a patient’s troublesome problem with postnasal drip, orders that the patient’s nose be removed, or ordering an incontinent patient’s bladder be removed because he or she keeps wetting the examination bed. No degree of “inconvenience” to their appointed guardians should permit the infringement of these patients’ basic rights to their bodies. They, like any other children, ought to enjoy the right to basic material comforts and to guidance and care from their guardians, not to be used as a means for profit. That they are far more starved of these basic rights than most children, serves to heighten the injustice of their being treated like financial investments.


What separate humans from animals are our abilities to empathize with others, to care for the surrounding environment, and to have an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. These are principles on which all orphanages, state-run or private, ought to be founded, and any reasoning based on “avoiding inconvenience” should only ever be secondary: the director, however, seems to have totally inverted his priorities.


If these forced hysterectomies had happened in rural areas where a lack of sexual education and of a knowledge of the law, there would be a different debate at hand. However, graduating from Nankai University’s sociology and being responsible for tens of children, vice-chair board Xiaoyan Chen cannot plead ignorance of legal statute, and yet he has blatantly flouted the law in co- authorizing such a procedure.


China’s Widespread Practice of Eating Placenta


In certain areas of the world where economic and cultural development occur simultaneously, the consumption of placenta, as well as other human organs, is considered strange, faddish, or outrageous. However, in areas of the world where economic development far outpaces the development of scientific education, there is still the folk belief that eating a fresh placenta, blood and all, can promote beauty and long life; as the practice became more widespread, doctors began taking placentas from mothers who’d just given birth, rather than throwing them out. A mother could buy back her placenta—for thirty RMB. When I worked in a clinic, it was common for fresh placentas to be quickly divvied up. Gynecologists, their staff, and their friends were prioritized, and the leftovers, if there were any, went to other departments. In China’s quickly expanding economy, placentas have become a kind of commoditized beauty and health supplement. The practice has even spread to Hong Kong. People sometimes bring placentas with them from the mainland to Baochun hospital, where I worked; the placentas that fetched the highest price were those of first-time mothers. The practice became so well-known that a movie, Jiaozi, was made in which characters eat fresh placental dumplings.


Placentas are one thing, but what about other organs? Some people need kidney transplants, heart transplants—is there a market for uteruses? What if uteruses suddenly were discovered to have some kind of health benefit? Though the line of reasoning quickly falls into absurdity, it is only different by degrees than the equally absurd reasoning given for the forced hysterectomies.


We know that the director of the Nantong welfare institute, Xiaoyan Chen, was able to order the surgeries because of his connections with the chief surgeon of gynecology at Nantong University’s affiliated Chengdong hospital. We know he rushed the girls over without any kind of legal permission and that he lied that they were there for appendectomies. In a country where 60% of people have reported aversion to doctor’s visits because the fees are too high, and where hospitals are frequently involved in embezzlement and malpractice suits, who is going to believe that doctors, without any kind of incentive or pressure, are going to cut out girl’s uterus to “benefit society”?


As for the girls, their disabilities prevent them from being able to vocally refuse the procedure, but it seems likely that even if they had said no, the director would not have listened to them anyway.


Legal Safeguards Offer Little Real Protection


In China’s “Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons”, the fifty second clause states clearly: exploiting those with disabilities, infringing on their human rights or any other legal rights, constitutes illegal behavior and will be punished as outlined by the relevant criminal law.  Rape of disabled people or of people unable to recognize their own actions or give consent will be treated as any other form of rape and will be similarly punished by law.


Unless these two women were profoundly mentally disabled, there is no justification for their being forced to undergo hysterectomy and robbed of their rights to marriage and reproduction. The burden should not rest on women, but on men who rape them.


The “Law on Maternal and Infant Health care” states that in cases where mothers are sick and unable to give birth under proper conditions, a medical institution should handle the case, and in cases where women need to undergo ligation surgeries or other sterilization procedures, such procedures must meet the procedural and technological standards established by the State Council bureau of health, as well as approval by a governmental committee that is higher than county level”. Secret, non-consensual hysterectomies are clearly in violation of the law.


The “Law for the Protection of Minors” also states that parents or other legally appointed guardians are obligated to shelter and to demonstrate care for their underage children, that they must not mistreat them or abandon them; the fifty second clause says that infringing the human rights of minors and other legally given rights constitutes illegal behavior, and will incur investigation and punishment. Mistreating family members, behaving unfairly towards them, will incur punishment in keeping with article one hundred eighty two.


When I spoke to a lawyer based in Beijing, he told me that, because of the girls’ disabilities and in light of the fact that their organs were healthy, the people who ordered surgeries on them were acting in bad faith, that they had clearly taken advantage of them, and should be prosecuted for a criminal offense.


Lishui Zhao, head of the Beijing Chanke maternity hospital, says that female sterilization has especially strong negative effects on pre-pubescent or pubescent girls, permanently changing their mental and physical development and putting them at greater risk for health problems. Many will develop hormone imbalances, which can cause depression and insomnia. Hysterectomy on women with normally functioning uteruses is almost never justified.


More Secrets Exposed


The exposing of the welfare institutes’ activities caused an uproar among the public. However, though many different media outlets began covering the case, all refused to release detailed information. At the end of April, the Nantong prefectural government released a statement that it would be “making a unanimous decision soon”, but did not elaborate. On June 3rd, the people’s court of Nantong’s Chongquan district still had not released a public statement as to the status of the case; as of today, little is changed. Different Nantong organizations, including the civil affairs bureau, district government, women’s league, and welfare agency, all either claimed to have heard only recently about the case or to have very limited knowledge about it. A few individuals have come forth and offered me the information that four people have been prosecuted and are awaiting verdicts in the comfort of their homes.


Many aspects of the welfare institutes are still hushed up. One is that they demand “adoption fees” from adoptive families, despite the fact that no law states that such a fine is needed. “Eighteen thousand RMB” is a phrase commonly heard by couples who adopt, after haggling, though eighteen thousand is the agreed-upon sum. The more kids are adopted, the more money the welfare institutes make, but where the money goes is unclear. One thing is certain: the quality of living among the orphans has hardly changed at all. They each continue to be raised on the 310 RMB monthly allowance that the government offers all orphans. Not long ago, it was revealed that some welfare agencies had even been buying children from child traffickers, and sold for money to traffickers.


Ten years ago, the Nantong welfare agency deliberately “discarded” two of its orphans in secret. One was just under ten years old, the other was from Haimen and was about fifteen. The reason was that they were “hard to care for, stole food, hit people, and were extremely loud,” such that the institute came up with a “brilliant plan” to hire two drivers to “drop them off” in a city in Zhejiang. The children liked car rides, and after they got in, the welfare workers pretended they had to leave to use the bathroom, whereupon the doors were closed and their responsibilities disposed of. Today, one of these workers has already been promoted to the general section leader, while another worker who was involved broke the case to the Southern Metropolis.


All China Women’s Federation Keep Quiet


What is perhaps the most confounding fact is that the organizations that allegedly stand for and fight for women’s rights and benefits, irrespective of size and importance, even the national women’s federation and many nonprofit women’s organizations, have refused to speak up for these two girls or to demand justice for them, to ask for civil and criminal proceedings against those responsible. Even those subsidized by western endowments like Forbes, the Ford Foundation, and Motorola have kept their mouths shut. In Jiangsu’s women’s federation, there are 2353 member organizations, all of which supposedly advocate for the rights of women, children, or disabled people. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to find a single newspaper, magazine, online publication even talking about this case, let alone covering it on-site or speaking critically of it. When I called the federation, everyone I talked to was evasive, saying that the issue wasn’t within their area of expertise or had nothing to do with them. The more sympathetic people asked me to speak to the civil bureau or the welfare institute itself, but no matter whom I asked, the end result was silence.


Not long ago, Beijing hosted the UN’s fourth world conference on women. However, during all the high-flown speeches about rights, no mention was made of these particular women or the institutional violence they suffered. The people who had the stage might have done better to stop speaking for a second, lean down from their platforms, and listen to the small, wordless cries of the women and children that they have failed to speak for.


Note: some information taken from the Southern Metropolis Daily and the Eastern Morning Post.