In the early hours of Aug. 3, the southern province of Guangdong settled into a peaceful sleep after Typhoon Nida had lashed through with wind speeds of over 150 kilometers per hour. But in a hospital in Shenzhen, one woman’s mood was turbulent as she tried to resign herself to the death of an unborn daughter she had desperately wanted.
Anxiang was six months pregnant, and she had decided to abort her pregnancy because she and her husband couldn’t face losing their public sector jobs for violating the nation’s family planning policy.
Though the couple had thought they were entitled to have another child under the two-child policy, an omission in the province’s regulations regarding couples in their second marriages had the management at their office worried, and at the end of July they were given an ultimatum: abort, or face fines and dismissal.
But abortion via medication or suction is only possible in the first three months of pregnancy. At six months, Anxiang’s only option was an induced abortion. On Aug. 1, she had an injection to terminate the fetus, and on August 3, she had to induce labor to pass the stillborn child.
The next day, Anxiang — an online handle she uses to protect her identity — sent a message to a chat group of remarried pregnant couples in Guangdong: “I saw my daughter. She didn’t move. She was dead.”
One of the group’s members, 38-year-old Lin Jing, was devastated when she saw the message. “I was frightened to see that one mother aborted her pregnancy under the pressure, knowing that others might follow,” she told Sixth Tone.
Lin Jing poses for a photo in a restaurant in Zhaoqing, Guangdong province, Aug. 3, 2016. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone
Last October, the Communist Party announced that couples would be allowed to have two children, ending China’s famously strict one-child family planning policy that had been in place since the 1970s. The new two-child policy was implemented from Jan. 1, 2016, but the central government left it up to provinces to work out the details.
Many provinces specified that couples who remarry would be permitted to have two children if their previous relationships had produced one or no children, or one child regardless of how many children they’d had in the past. But Guangdong hasn’t yet released a policy on second marriages, leaving many uncertain of their rights.
Lin had never been married or had a child before she wed her husband surnamed Zhong in 2009, though he had a son with his ex-wife. The newlyweds soon had a daughter in 2011, and afterwards Lin had a contraceptive IUD inserted, in keeping with the family planning policy at the time.
In November 2015, following the party announcement of the two-child policy, the small-town public high school where Lin teaches history organized for a group of married teachers to have their contraceptive devices removed. Lin went along too: No one from the school or the local family planning office had mentioned that she would be excluded because her husband had two children already.
But Lin didn’t think she’d have a second child anyway. She’d taken fertility medication for a year before she was able to conceive the first time, and she was five years younger then. Yet without any treatment, during the Chinese New Year holiday in February 2016, she found out she was pregnant.
“I am 38 years old, and my husband is 48 years old. It could be our last chance,” she said. “It’s fate.”
News about the two-child policy dominated Chinese media throughout February, and Lin read that Beijing’s local guidelines permitted women in her situation to have a second child. But though Guangdong had already published its new population and family planning regulations, there was no mention of remarried couples. Lin called the Guangdong family planning office, and they reassured her that it would be fine for her to have a second child. “They told me a new regulation would be published in March,” she said.
Lin waited through March, then May, then June. The family planning office kept telling her that new regulations would be released soon. Meanwhile, her pregnancy grew increasingly difficult to hide from colleagues and friends, but she was determined to keep it a secret so she wouldn’t endanger her teaching career, and her husband’s government job.
Every weekend for the first two months, Lin spent hours traveling to Guangzhou for prenatal care instead of going to the local hospital. At school, she wore her usual high heels so her colleagues wouldn’t suspect a change, though she kept flats under her desk. Even now during the school holidays, she only goes out after dark.
Without clarification that her pregnancy is legal, Lin doesn’t have access to insurance coverage for prenatal care, or any maternity leave. When the summer vacation began in June, she was relieved that she wouldn’t need to work for a couple of months, but she dreads the beginning of the new term in September. By then she’ll be in her third trimester.
“My emotions are a rollercoaster,” Lin said. Every day she reads messages from the chat group, drawing strength from other expectant mothers in her situation, and commiserating with their pain. “If I see that anyone has been noticed by their bosses, I get upset,” she said, “We’re all under so much pressure and we can’t confide in anyone but each other.”
Lin Jing and the members of her WeChat group convene at the entrance to the provincial government offices with a petition asking officials to legalize their pregnancies, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 21, 2016. Courtesy of the WeChat group for remarried pregnant women.
In July, Lin and the other group members converged at the offices of the provincial government with a petition asking officials to legalize their pregnancies. “They told us we deliberately broke the law,” Lin said. “They thought we’d just come to make trouble.” Lin was in tears as she left the office without an answer. “We’re law-abiding citizens, and my husband and I have each worked in the public service for more than 15 years,” she said.
Anxiang agrees that the families haven’t done anything wrong. “We’re all honest people, we haven’t tried to cheat the system,” she said. “If the rules came out early and said we weren’t allowed to have a child, we would never try to evade the law.”
Su, another woman in the group, prepared to terminate her seven-month pregnancy on July 30. Her and her husband’s employer had asked them to sign an agreement saying that they would terminate the pregnancy if no government statement was released by the end of July. After widespread coverage of Su’s dilemma, the Guangdong family planning office responded publicly on Aug. 2, suggesting that state employers back down from policing remarried couples’ pregnancies.
Following the statement, Su decided to keep her pregnancy. But for Anxiang, who had already received an abortion injection a day earlier, it was too late. She blames the Guangdong provincial government and her state employer for her unborn daughter’s death. “The culprit is the laziness of the family planning office, and my manager for being scared to shoulder the responsibility,” she told Sixth Tone.
Lin doesn’t know how her employer will react to her pregnancy, but she’ll soon find out. In two weeks she’ll have a staff meeting preparing teachers for the new term.
She remains undecided. “No policy has come out on paper,” she said. “We still don’t have the protection of law.”
(Header image: A pregnant woman ties up her hair at home, Nov. 4, 2013. Mai Tian/VCG)