This past week, Ma Rongrong (surname: Ma), 26 years old, fell to her death from a 5th floor window at the Yulin No 1 Hospital in Shaanxi Province, China. She was 42 weeks pregnant and in labor at the time of her death, which has since been ruled a suicide.
It was originally reported that Ma was told by doctors that she should have a cesarean section delivery because of the baby’s head circumference and the risk it posed to both mother and baby. Her family, however, despite the advice of doctors, would not authorize it, as required by Chinese law. They insisted on a natural birth despite the mother’s repeated pleas and protests.
Ma’s husband, it should be noted, now disputes the hospital’s account and claims that the doctors told him that a C-section was not necessary. Police are now investigating.
What is clear is that Ma was in great pain from the labor and repeatedly begged the doctors and her family to allow the C-section. A haunting video has been posted on Chinese social media showing Ma outside of her hospital room clearly pleading for her family’s support. That was not forthcoming, however, and Ma shortly thereafter made the decision to end her life and the life of her unborn child.
I have yet to see the story on any of the American news feeds. I learned of it only because my Chinese wife, who gets her news from Chinese websites, told me about it. And, for the first time since I started this blog, she asked me to write about it. She has never before made such a request. As a woman, and particularly as a Chinese woman, she is outraged.
It’s not hard to see why. At its heart, this is a simple question of a woman’s right to choose. Why did an apparently sane and otherwise healthy woman require her husband’s or family’s permission to undergo a simple C-section, although it appears to have been established that the hospital was following the law on the matter. To date, no extenuating circumstances have been suggested.
And why in the world, under the circumstances and given the emotional and physical state of the patient, was she left alone, by either her family or the hospital, long enough to get the window open and climb out?
Social media in China has been afire, largely with disgust, around the story. Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging version of Twitter, with comparable traffic numbers, had more than 56 million views in one day. The news itself has been carried by all of the major news outlets in China, including those that are state owned.
My wife knows no one involved in the story and has no more information than the average reader. She, however, believes the hospital’s version of events must be accurate (i.e. that the family/husband refused consent) for the simple reason that the hospital would naturally want to perform a C-section given that it would be faster and bring in more revenue. To the non-Chinese that undoubtedly sounds incredibly cynical and judgmental. Trust me, it’s not. It’s a utilitarian view of reality that she passes no judgment on. It is what it is.
She is a mother herself who gave birth in a small Chinese city in the Dongbei region of China (China’s equivalent of our New England.) in the early 90s. She notes that the only time she ever saw a doctor or hospital was for the original confirmation of pregnancy and the actual birth, which, in her case, was natural and without complication. She does note, however, that hospitals in China were routinely criticized at the time for over-prescribing C-sections in the interest of time and efficiency.
Without taking anything away from the overriding issue of the woman’s right to choose and the tragic death of mother and child in this case, there is a larger issue here of China’s struggle to culturally and legally keep pace with its rapid modernization and economic advancement. There is an unparalleled length of cultural history and tradition involved. Superstition and the Confucian sense of obligation, particularly to family, moreover, continue to play a significant role.
Much of the resulting cultural tension turns on the issue of suffering. Within Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism, suffering is considered a natural element of life. And most Chinese, and all older Chinese, including my wife’s generation, have felt its impact first hand. That, coupled with the naturally inductive world view on which Chinese culture is based, promotes a “life is hard, get over it” mentality on many fronts.
Throughout history and around the world, of course, this has always been a point of generational friction. The older generation inevitably believes that the younger generation faces less hardship than they did, although this historical pattern is being challenged in the US and elsewhere today. I myself would not suggest that my teenage daughters have things any easier than I did. They face many challenges I am grateful I did not.
I do believe that Americans of all generations, however, have embraced the right to exceptionalism and the sense of victimization that inevitably follows to an unhealthy degree. We are, as a result, in a state of chronic indignation that is ultimately counter-productive.
Let us hope that the tragic story of Ma Rongrong gives us all a reason to step back and take stock of our own lives, values, and priorities. And that China sees fit to update its regulations concerning a woman’s right to pain-free birth.
Contact: You may write the author at firstname.lastname@example.org