Thin, dull yellow, wooden benches line the stuffy waiting room. Barred windows send blocks of light onto a once white linoleum floor. Although this is a hospital, it smells of neither sterilization fluid nor menthol rub, but of human sweat. Along a dim hallway, young women in all stages of pregnancy wait on more paint-chipped benches. A metal examination table, stirrups down and unused, lies to one side. There is no central air-conditioning.
This was Guangzhou’s finest, grade A public hospital when it was built 40 years ago. Now, it is one of hundreds of private and state-owned clinics stretching from the boomtown of Shenzhen to the ancient city of Guangzhou that perform tens of thousands of abortions every year. They draw pregnant women from across China, and beyond. “Women come from Hong Kong for treatment all the time,” says a tired gynecologist at the Guangzhou Area People’s Hospital. “They even fly in from Beijing, Singapore and Macau.”
Why would someone come so far for a medical procedure? One reason is that the operations are cheap: $60 per patient, all inclusive. But the main draw is the method used: in 1998, Guangzhou Second City People’s Hospital began using general anesthesia for every operation, which is used in the rest of China solely for late-term abortions or patients under extreme stress. But here, thanks to the drugs, all patients are unconscious during the 10-minute operation. “We’ve performed over 7,000 ‘no-pain’ abortions since we began the service midway through 1998,” one long-haired nurse at Guangzhou’s Second City People’s Hospital boasts. “Now all the hospitals in the region give ‘no-pain’ abortions.”
And Hong Kong women come despite clean, government-approved alternatives at home. Paul Yip Sui-fai of the University of Hong Kong’s statistics and actuarial science department says that thousands are making the quick trip across the border for a cheap, painless procedure. Adds Angela Pau, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Family Planning Association: “Almost one-third of women we surveyed admitted to going to the mainland for abortions.”
Hong Kong’s official rate of abortion is already highone per every 2.4 births, against a one-to-five ratio in Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan. But Yip says the real number could be twice as high. “Adding the illegal and mainland abortions into consideration would result in an abortion rate of 0.67, or 67 abortions per 100 live births,” Yip explains.
It helps, of course, that on the eastern side of the Pearl River, abortion is treated as a human right, rather than a metaphysical question. And no one cares who you are or why you’re there. “Girls and women of all ages come in here everyday for treatment,” says the gynecologist at Guangzhou Area People’s Hospital. “I don’t ask for reasons or hometowns.”