I wasn’t in Lanzhou for history, topography, industry, or even gastronomy. I was in Lanzhou to pick up my son, a beautiful little boy who had wondered all his life who his dad was. And, as a surprise to both of us, it turned out to be me.
In 2018, my life changed forever in a most unlikely place. The city of over four million people had, until recently, been completely unknown to me. Surrounded by arid countryside that is reminiscent of the topography around Loma Linda, the city was one of the first in China to industrialize. Industrialization, along with its location in a valley, once made Lanzhou’s air the most polluted in China – no small achievement. But Lanzhou China has managed to clean up its act.
Today it’s a city with a certain charm. The Huang He (Yellow) River flows majestically through its center, with beautiful parks on both banks. In one park are the most impressively, intricately engineered waterwheels built to the ancient designs of Duan Xu, who lived during the Ming Dynasty. Today the waterwheels harvest the river’s water for irrigation of the beautiful gardens just as they irrigated crops all those centuries ago. Another park opens onto an impressive public square with convention and performing arts spaces that would be a credit to any city.
But none of those things make Lanzhou famous today. Everywhere you go in China, the minute you say Lanzhou, people smile and immediately reply, “Spicy beef noodles!” I can’t say with any level of assurance how good the beef noodles are, but I can say that their spicy noodles with vegetables are absolutely worth the trip!
But I wasn’t in Lanzhou for history, topography, industry, or even gastronomy. I was in Lanzhou to pick up my son, a beautiful little boy who had wondered all his life who his dad was. And, as a surprise to both of us, it turned out to be me.1
When my wife and I returned with our precious boy, we received an invite from the adoption listserv we are on to see a showing of an award-winning documentary entitled One Child Nation.2 Other adoptive parents who’d seen the documentary gushed about the enormous impact it had on them and how it helped them understand more fully the culture and circumstances their children grew up in.
The Inhumanity of China’s One Child Policy
If you’re looking for a little light entertainment, One Child Nation is certainly not it. The personal stories are gripping, almost unimaginably tragic, and immensely impactful. Two of them stick out to me.
One day, artist Pang Weng was walking around his home city of Beijing, when he came across a yellow bag dumped under a bridge. What caught his attention was something dangling out of the bag. Could it be? He moved closer and was horrified to confirm it was a little human leg.
With the curiosity that fuels artists, he looked inside, and there he discovered a perfectly formed little baby that looked just like his son when he curls up to take a nap. In the following months, he found yellow bag after yellow bag, all with the words “medical waste” carefully printed on them, all containing little dead babies. Someone, somewhere in the city had decided that under a bridge or by road or in a trash heap was as good as any place for this human “waste.” The inhumanity, the complete disregard for the dignity of these babies, the attempt to erase them forever, spoke to Peng. And so he began painting portrait after portrait of the babies he found.
His efforts did not go unnoticed. His gallery was closed down. He was evicted. And to this day, he is persona non grata in China.3 If you want to see his paintings bestowing the dignity in art that life denied them, it’s not as easy as it sounds, as there’s scarce trace of them on the internet – possibly indicating that technology can censor artists just as effectively governments can. But it is still worth trying to find his paintings after you meet the other memorable character in the film, Huaru Yuan, one of the thousands of local midwives charged with enforcing China’s one child policy.
In the documentary, she states she did tens of thousands of abortions. “I countered this out of guilt because I aborted and killed babies.” Now she helps infertile couples. When asked why she is treating infertile couples, she replies with abrasive honesty: “I want to atone for my sins, for all the abortions and killings I did. What goes around, comes around. There will be retribution for me… I’ve done so many bad things in the past. While some people may say these were not bad things because it was my job, I was the one who killed. I was the executioner. I killed those babies, didn’t I?”
We left the documentary with so many questions. Maybe the most compelling was, how could Wang Peng and Huaru Yuan, bathed in decades of propaganda supporting abortion, grow to find it so morally objectionable? And maybe even more confounding, how could so many of our friends react so nonchalantly to the ongoing reality of abortion in America? Certainly, American abortion isn’t the same as China’s in many ways. We don’t find any little bodies in yellow bags discarded under our bridges. It’s all done out of sight, obscured from view, sanitized through euphemisms. And the government isn’t forcing it to happen. It’s boyfriends, parents, economics pushing the killing. But does our sanitation and the difference in force structures make the little dead bodies any less real? Does it make the little arms, legs, faces, and tummies disappear? Is our killing any different from their killing? Are we as individuals and as a society any less guilty than they are?
American abortion isn’t the same as China’s in many ways. We don’t find any little bodies in yellow bags discarded under our bridges. It’s all done out of sight, obscured from view, sanitized through euphemisms.
These aren’t comfortable questions to ask. But for us as human beings with free agency in a democratic society, they are questions we cannot avoid. And there are other difficult questions we need to struggle with: the “Buts.”
But … if China had not employed the one child policy, what then? It’s a question people ask in the documentary. Older relatives explain how tough times were for them. With additional mouths to feed in China, there could have been starvation. Maybe standards of living wouldn’t have increased so rapidly. Maybe the mass killing of the young was justified, necessary, even laudable? Maybe the Party was right?
Like China, the U.S. has its own hard questions. If abortion were not available, would we have an epidemic of unwanted children? Would they grow up in unstable homes without parents around? Would they suffer mental abuse and the hopelessness that can come with it? Would crime increase? Would our rates of imprisonment explode as these unwanted children ran wild? Is aborting roughly a million American babies a year saving them from hellish lives, and our society from bands of unwanted youths committing all manner of ills?
The Side Effects of Roe v. Wade
It’s not a trivial consideration, and it turns out there’s data that provides strong indications toward the answers. In 1973, the year Roe v. Wade mandated the legalization of abortion across the United States, 8 percent of American children lived in a home missing either their mother or father.4 In 2022, more than 30 percent of American children are being raised in a home missing one or both of their parents.5 Just because a child is missing one or more parents doesn’t mean they weren’t planned and aren’t loved, but it does indicate that the availability of abortion hasn’t provided the promise of a stable home life for American children. Indeed, quite the opposite occurred in the Roe era. And that has consequences.
But what about the improvement in mental health that might accompany eliminating undesired children? According to US Centers for Disease Control, the rate of suicide for Americans aged 15 – 19 increased 88% between 1970 and 1990, and the suicide rate for Americans aged 5 to 14 increased an astonishing 267% in the same period.5 Another indication of the state of mental health is drug overdoses. In 1979, there was just a little over 1 drug overdose death per 100,000 Americans. By 2016, that number had increased to almost 17 drug overdose deaths. In 2020, the US experienced over 28 overdose deaths per 100,000 Americans. From the end of the 70s to the beginning of the 2020’s, the drug overdose rate per 100,000 Americans increased roughly 2800%.
Even if there are strong objective indicators that the nation’s mental health declined substantially in the years post Roe, some – including the team at Freakonomics – have made the argument that high rates of abortion led to a reduction in crime. But American violent crime rates exceeded the violent crime rates of 1973 in 36 of the 46 subsequent years.6 In 1973, the violent crime rate was 417.4 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans. 20 years later, the violent crime rate had soared to 746.8 violent crimes per American – a 79% increase.
Only in the era of mass incarceration did the violent crime rate dip – but mass incarceration isn’t a solution; it’s a catastrophe in another form. The number of Americans incarcerated has risen from a little over 200,000 in 19737 to a staggering two million.8 The 1000% growth in the number of Americans incarcerated has far outstripped the 52% rate of population growth during the period. Today, the “land of the free” has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It is costing us $80 billion a year to incarcerate this astonishingly large number of people.9 All this imprisonment, all the familial disruption, lost productivity, all the pain that goes with it, and yet today crime rates are surging, and mass shootings increased from an average of 12 a year when Roe was decided to an average of 160 per year from 2011 to 2020.10 Tragically, in 2022, we experienced surging murder rates and the highest number of mass shootings in American history.11
In 1973 we made a Faustian bargain: permit the killing of our innocent but “unwanted” young and the ills of society will be mitigated. To say they haven’t been mitigated is an understatement. In the most important objectively measurable ways – parentlessness, youth suicide, drug overdoses, violent crime, incarceration rates, and the number of mass shootings – societal ills have intensified.
In 1973 we made a Faustian bargain: permit the killing of our innocent but “unwanted” young and the ills of society will be mitigated.
In a world as complex as ours, there will always be arguments over why so many of the key indicators have gone in the wrong direction. The point isn’t that aborting 63 million young Americans since Roe is solely responsible for these trends, or even primarily responsible – though embracing killing other humans as a legally mandated option cannot help but pervasively influence the character of a society with all the associated impacts that go with it. The point is that the promise of legalized abortion has demonstrably failed to materialize.
But … regardless of societal impact, or lack thereof, isn’t legalized abortion necessary to advance the rights of women? Early feminists didn’t think so. “Without known exception, our feminist foremothers opposed abortion, and – like Susan B. Anthony – sought to address the root causes that drive women to abortion,” writes Serrin Foster, the president of Feminists for Life.12 She goes on to provide the historical evidence that feminism and opposition to abortion were intrinsically linked. And for good reason. Contrary to the myth so often repeated, abortion is seldom based on a free choice. A 2017 study reports that in a nationwide survey of women who had an abortion, three-quarters felt some form of coercion from others to have the abortion. Sixty-six percent of those surveyed reported knowing at the time it was the wrong decision.13 Economics are also a widely reported force coercing abortion.14 When families, men, and societies don’t support women and children, many people feel pushed into a corner. But it’s a very dark corner. Researchers found that common negatives associated with abortion include “shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, compromised self-appraisals and self-destructive behaviors.”15
“It Comes Back to Haunt You”
Sharon Osborne, TV presenter and wife of rock singer Ozzy Osborne, provides an example of the coercive reality:
I had an abortion at 17, and it was the worst thing I ever did. I was two months gone when I realized. I went to my mum and she said, without pausing for breath: “You have to get rid of it.” She told me where the clinic was, then virtually pushed me off. She was so angry. She said I’d got myself in this mess, now she had to get me out…. I howled my way through it, and it was horrible…. I would never recommend it to anyone because it comes back to haunt you.16
Nicki Minaj, the rapper and singer, carries similar scars, rapping about the pressure she experienced to abort her child, and the grief that follows her:
Please baby, forgive me, mommy was young
Mommy was too busy tryna have fun
Now, I don’t pat myself on the back for sending you back
’Cause God knows I was better than that (kyuh)
To conceive you, then leave you, the concept alone seems evil
I’m trapped in my conscience
I adhered to the nonsense, listened to people who told me…
Touchingly, she hopes for a reunion with her baby –
Wish I could touch your little face, or just hold your little hand
If it’s part of God’s plan maybe we can meet again17
There’s an empowerment mythology, and then there’s this brutal reality of vulnerable women coerced into taking the life of their own baby.
Disproportionate Effect on Baby Girls
Another truth about abortion that proponents seldom acknowledge: it’s employed to selectively kill baby girls. The New Scientist reports that a large global study estimates that a staggering 23 million baby girls have been aborted after prenatal tests determined they were female.18 To put the scale of this wholesale killing of baby girls into perspective, that’s more baby girls killed specifically because they were girls than the entire female populations of Samoa, Iceland, Jamaica, New Zealand, Botswana, Ireland, Singapore, Israel, Nicaragua, Tonga, and Norway combined. That is a lot of missing girls. How can a policy that results in this kind of targeted violence against females be called female empowerment? It is Orwellian.
And, of course, even when abortions aren’t deployed to kill girls specifically, roughly half of all other abortions are of baby girls. It is hard to credibly argue that society advances female rights by allowing the killing of baby females.
Why Oppose Abortion?
But … even if abortion hasn’t delivered the societal gains it promised, even if many women are routinely coerced into abortions and even if baby girls are killed specifically because they are girls, it doesn’t mean that abortion shouldn’t be legal. Many things in this world aren’t ideal. Free societies require space for human beings to make their own choices – even if they are bad for us and not ideal for others.
So, can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we recognize that killing young human beings because they are unwanted is unethical – maybe, as Huaru Yuan put it, we can even believe killing babies is a “sin” – but in a free society, believe we should allow others the space to act sinfully, unethically, immorally. Although we find abortion personally objectionable, can’t we recognize others have different views? And shouldn’t we respect those views?
The challenge of this compromise is that it forces us to ask why we oppose abortion. Most of us aren’t generally opposed to birth control. So, what is it about abortion that we oppose? The answer inevitably is that abortion involves taking the life of a young human being. Put another way, this isn’t just about someone making a bad decision for themselves. This is about a lucrative industry set up around killing other human beings. Whether we use the Latin word for our young (fetus), or the English word (baby), or any other term or euphemism, it all results in the same end: an innocent, defenseless young human being is deliberately targeted for killing. So, of course, outside the most extreme circumstances, we recoil at the thought.
But is it ethical or moral, does it comport with our concepts of democracy and liberty to stop others killing innocent human beings? The answer must be, “Yes.” The first right enunciated in the Declaration of Independence is the “right to life,” from which flows the rights to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Every right we enjoy is predicated on the right to life. Once we take that right away from our fellow human beings, we have robbed them of every right promised in a liberal democracy. Abortion is the ultimate act against our concepts of liberty, not an expression of it.
Every right we enjoy is predicated on the right to life.
But do legal protections for our youngest and most vulnerable reduce the killings? The pro-Abortion Guttmacher Institute reports that in the years immediately following Roe, the total number of abortions – both legal and illegal – more than doubled, and remained at roughly twice the annual rate for the two subsequent decades. Laws have consequences an in the case of Roe, that consequence can be measured in tens of millions of innocent lives. The number eventually dipped for a variety of reasons, including legislation at the state level designed to protect life. While the annual number of abortions per year has fluctuated since, there have always been substantially more abortions than there were when Roe was decided.
What About Rape and Incest?
But … what about the most compelling instances that involve rape (1 percent of abortions), incest (less than 0.5 percent of abortions), or abortions necessary to save the life of the mother?19
No protection is without exceptions. The right to life, whether it’s when we’re very young, very old, or in the prime of life, always has exceptions. The fact that we can enunciate the exceptions means that we’re capable of including them in our legislative frameworks. In democracies, we have a process to openly discuss how to do this, to change laws and regulations as we learn what works and what doesn’t. In Roe, the Supreme Court explicitly recognized this was already happening across the U.S. before the Court got involved. Roe greatly inhibited the democratic process by finding that the Constitution mandates all states legalize abortion in a specific way. The decision was widely critiqued at the time, and even many of those who support the outcome recognize the weaknesses in the legal reasoning that led to it. For example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg speaking at the University of Chicago law school in 2013, critiqued the basis of the Roe decision and stated abortion should have been dealt with gradually in cooperation state legislatures.
The Dobbs Effect
As previously noted, there is no debate that Roe had an immediate and significant impact. In the years immediately after Roe was decided, the number of abortions more than doubled. While the number decreased from its peak in the post-Roe years, it has remained higher than pre-Roe years every year since and is increasing again.
The Court’s recent Dobbs decision overruling Roe doesn’t ban abortion. Rather, Dobbs hands back to the democratic process all the complex questions associated with abortion. The decision is easy to read, and worth the time. Unlike the shallow caricatures presented in much of the media, Dobbs is thoughtful, thorough, and founded on sound constitutional reasoning.
After Dobbs, the democratic is once again the place we, as a free people, decide the parameters of protection for our young while weighing the needs and circumstances of mothers and society. There is good reason to believe legislatures are far better equipped to balance the complex questions and prepared the detailed guidance necessary than courts, which, by the nature of their periodic opinions, are ill-equipped to provide the level of detail necessary to ensure clarity. Further, legislatures are comprised of much broader cross sections of society and are in contact with a wider range of citizens. Further, the recent vote in Kansas to reject a proposal to overturn a state constitutional right to an abortion demonstrates citizens are able to engage on the issue at the ballot box.
Is Abortion a Religious Issue?
But … as a Seventh-day Adventist, my church is very concerned about religious intrusion into our laws. Aren’t laws that protect human life a slippery slope leading to religious coercion?
Early Adventists didn’t see it that way. James White published “A Solemn Appeal” against abortion, condemning the practice in the strongest terms.20 Similarly, the Advent Review & Sabbath Herald published pieces opposing abortion and supporting life. For example: “One of the most shocking and yet one of the most prevalent sins of this generation is the murder of unborn infants. Let those who think this a small sin read Psalm 139:16. They will see that even the unborn child is written in God’s book. And they may be well assured that God will not pass unnoticed the murder of such children.”21
Ellen White reinforced the idea of the value of unborn young, stating, “God looks into the tiny seed that He Himself has formed, and sees wrapped within it the beautiful flower, the shrub, or the lofty, wide-spreading tree. So does He see the possibilities in every human being.”22
The early Adventists reproduced the writings of members of the Physicians Crusade that worked to outlaw abortion.23 In doing so, they were following a long tradition among the followers of God. Josephus reports that, around the time of Christ, “The law moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring: and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten; or to destroy it afterward. And if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child; by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”24
It’s true that any legal entity and every arm of the state can be used to violate our rights. But it is also true that life is the first of those rights, and laws to protect our rights are necessary to experience them. If, as early Adventists believed, killing a baby is a form of murder, and if, as we all believe, banning murder is necessary, it is perfectly consistent today for Adventists to support measures designed to protect human life. Not that we should do this in a thoughtless, careless manner. Life is complex. Rights must be balanced. Extenuating circumstances must be considered. Abortion by its nature is particularly complex. And yes, if we support life, we must support all that is necessary to allow children and their parents to flourish. Wholistic, thoughtful, careful protection of all human life – babies, children, youth, adults, the elderly – is not at odds with the Adventist dedication to liberty. Such protection is core to it.
Something lost in all the political sloganeering is a better option than killing our young. American reports that up to two million American families may be currently waiting to adopt – perhaps 36 families per child available for adoption.25
It’s something my wife and I know about. Our journey started for us a long way from home, in a city we’d never heard of, with a precious little boy looking for his parents. Today our lives are filled with his love and joy and his excitement for life.
Let’s not give up hope.
Let’s give hope.
Let’s not support taking innocent life.
Let’s support everything necessary to provide an abundant life to every child.
James Standish, JD, cum laude, Georgetown University, MBA, University of Virginia, bachelors degree, Newbold College, England, is principal of a consulting firm in University Park, Maryland. He is married to Leisa Morton-Standish, and together they have three children.
- Why did we adopt from China? We were deemed too old to adopt domestically. We considered fostering, but with two daughters at home, we determined our ability to absorb new children at a moment’s notice as required by our county at that time, and then have them leave whenever the state deemed appropriate, was not consistent with our responsibility to provide a stable home for them.
- In July 2022, One Child Nation was streaming on Amazon Prime Video for free in most countries with a Prime subscription and may still be available.
- Grace Kei Lai-see and Yang Fan, “Chinese Artist Evicted Over Paintings of Abandoned, Aborted Babies,” translated by Luisetta Mudie, Radio Free Asia, July 8, 2014, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/evicted-07182014115938.html.
- “Historical Living Arrangements of Children,” United States Census Bureau, November 2021, Figure CH-1, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/time-series/demo/families-and-households/ch-1.pdf.
- Sahil Kapur and Jon Schuppe, “ ‘Overall Crime Decreased in 2020’ in the U.S., Report Finds,” NBC News, Sept 12, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/overall-crime-decreased-2020-united-states-report-finds-n1278938 (citing FBI numbers).
- Patrick A. Langan et al., “Historical Statistics on Prisoners in State and Federal Institutions, 1925-86,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 1988, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/111098NCJRS.pdf.
- World Population Review, “Incarceration Rates by Country 2022,” https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/incarceration-rates-by-country.
- American Civil Liberties Union, “What’s at Stake,” https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration#:~:text=Despite%20making%20up%20close%20to,outpacing%20population%20growth%20and%20crime.
- Jaclyn Schildkraut and H. Jaymi Elsass, “Mass Shooting Factsheet,” Rockefeller Institute of Government, https://rockinst.org/gun-violence/mass-shooting-factsheet/.
- Júlia Ledur, Kate Rabinowitz, and Artur Galocha, “There Have Been Over 300 Mass Shootings so Far in 2022,” The Washington Post, updated July 5, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/06/02/mass-shootings-in-2022/.
- Serrin M. Foster, “Feminist Foremothers,” Feminists for Life of America, https://www.feministsforlife.org/herstory/.
- Priscilla K. Coleman et al., “Women Who Suffered Emotionally from Abortion: A Qualitative Synthesis of Their Experiences.” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 22, no. 4 (2017): 113–118, https://www.jpands.org/vol22no4/coleman.pdf.
- Lawrence B. Finer et al., “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives.” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37, no. 3 (2005): 110–118.
- Coleman et al., ““Women Who Suffered Emotionally from Abortion.”
- Jenny Johnston, “Sharon: The Rock of Osbournes unXpurgated,” Daily Mail, December 20, 2004, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-331265/Sharon-The-rock-Osbournes-unXpurgated.html.
- Nicki Minaj, “Autobiography,” track 21 on Sucka Free mixtape, Dirty Money Records (2008), https://genius.com/Nicki-minaj-autobiography-lyrics.
- Debra Mackenzie, “Sex-selective Abortions May Have Stopped the Birth of 23 Million Girls,” New Scientist, April 16, 2019, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2199874-sex-selective-abortions-may-have-stopped-the-birth-of-23-million-girls/.
- Finer et al., “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions,” 113.
- James White, A Solemn Appeal (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press, 1870), 100, https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/1444.382.
- Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 30, 1869, 184. I am indebted to George Gainer for bringing to my attention this and the following quotes. George Gainer, “Abortion: History of Adventist Guidelines,” Ministry, August 1991, https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1991/08/abortion-history-of-adventist-guidelines.
- Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1905), 397.
- Gainer, “Abortion: History of Adventist Guidelines.”
- Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, trans. William Whiston (Auburn and Buffalo: John E. Beardsley, 1895).
- American Adoptions, “How Many Couples Are Waiting to Adopt a Baby?” https://www.americanadoptions.com/pregnant/waiting_adoptive_families.