Baby 59: born of China’s incomplete sexual revolution

The case of the single mother who gave birth in a toilet highlights China’s ambivalent attitude to sex


The baby’s face, when the doctors delicately snipped back the toilet pipe in which he was trapped, was pale, but peaceful. He seemed almost oblivious to the horrific events that had taken place in the previous hours, his first on the planet.

So far he has been named simply Baby 59, after the incubator in which he was kept following his ordeal. His 22-year-old mother had given birth to him in a squat toilet in an apartment in Pujiang, in eastern China.

She became pregnant after a short relationship with a local man. Too afraid of shaming her family, and too poor to pay for an abortion, she kept her pregnancy secret.

When her contractions started on May 25th she went to the toilet. After the baby was born, his mother says he slid into the toilet. She tried to grab him, and retrieve him with a mop, but couldn’t get him out. Panicked, she cleaned up the blood and, without admitting she was the mother, told the landlord there was a baby in the toilet. She then watched as firefighters freed him.

Aside from a few bumps and bruises, the 2.8kg baby, incredibly, is okay, although he had a low heart rate and some minor cuts on his head and limbs. The placenta was still attached.

His mother confessed to police a couple of days later when they asked her to have a medical checkup after searching the room she rented in the apartment building.

Though the case was initially treated as attempted murder, the police now believe the mother’s version of the story, that what happened was an accident. Baby 59 is back with his mother’s family and there will be no criminal charges.

A man claiming to be the child’s father is awaiting the outcome of a paternity test.

Regardless of how it happened, the impact of the event has moved, and horrified, people all over the world, many of whom have seen the internet footage of doctors cutting away the L-joint of a sewage pipe to rescue the infant.

On Sina Weibo, a Chinese online social network, a writer named Lao Cui wrote: “There are many people blaming the parents. But what the investigation shows is a young girl who got pregnant, but who had no money for an abortion or even to go to the hospital. At such a beautiful age, she suffered this painful, helpless experience. Whose fault is this? Is it really just a 22-year-old girl’s fault?”

China has experienced dramatic social change in recent years. As millions of young migrants abandon the countryside to work in the cities, a sexual revolution has occurred. Where once marriages were carefully organised by parents and matchmakers, now many young men and women are adrift from their families, and unprotected sex is not unusual.

Because of the one-child policy of population control, abortions are widely and cheaply available, and often availed of.

But attitudes have not caught up with behaviour. Sex education remains, at best, functional and is often non-existent. Sexual attitudes remain puritanical and intolerant, even though the younger generation has an increasingly open approach to sex.

Sociologist Li Yinhe said the incident has shown how many young people in China lack even the most basic sex education and don’t know how to avoid pregnancy.

“It also shows that sex before marriage exists on a mass scale. In 1989, I did some research which showed that only 15 per cent of people had sex before marriage. The most recent data I read is that 71 per cent of people now have sex before marriage,” says Li, a professor at the Institute of Sociology at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“Another reason for this incident is the way in which birth is controlled and monitored. She didn’t want the child because, if she gave birth to the child, she couldn’t get a hukou (residency permit) for him and she would have had to have paid a fine,” she said.

When people want children in China, they have to apply to the government family planning authorities to get permission.

The vast majority of people have children after they are married. If a woman becomes pregnant with a second child, and they are not among the minority of people who do not have to abide by the one-child policy, the couple is strongly encouraged to terminate the pregnancy.

People can go ahead and pay the stiff fine, but it’s about more than money – access to education and healthcare is restricted and there is a social stigma.

It is still very rare for a single woman to have a child in China, mainly because of the loss of face for her family, but there are legal reasons too. Unmarried births are counted as “unplanned” under the family-planning system, because they do not fit into government development targets. Technically, a woman can be required to have abortion.

“Chinese society is still against sex. The schools want to promote sex education, but they can’t because the parents hope their children get to know about sex at a later age,” says Li.

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