Is Chen Guangcheng “Pro-Life”?

Chen Guangcheng’s work against forced abortions and sterilisations began in 2005, nine years after his first foray into legal activism. It landed him on the 2006 TIME 100 list and in six years of various forms of detention, and caught the eye of anti-abortion campaigners in the US, where he is now staying. Amid claims that the “pro-life activist” has been “hijacked” by a media bent on obscuring his message, David Gibson explains that Chen’s views on the issue may not be as some have assumed. From Religion News Service, via The Washington Post:

“If it’s not forced abortion, I don’t think he’s necessarily against that,” said Bob Fu, a Chinese-born Christian and close friend of Chen who heads Texas-based China Aid, which lobbies for religious freedom in China.

Chen would not oppose “voluntary abortion,” Fu said, since Chen’s focus is on “the rule of law” — on making China a society that respects its own laws, which are routinely flouted, and on promoting the human rights and dignity of its citizens.

Indeed, in Chen’s two principal public statements since arriving in New York on May 19 — an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and an op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday (May 30) — Chen himself did not mention abortion. Instead, he repeatedly stressed that the “fundamental question the Chinese government must face is lawlessness,” as he wrote in The Times. “China does not lack laws, but the rule of law.”

In an interview on WNYC shortly after his arrival in New York, Chen’s friend and mentor Jerome Cohen described his position in similar terms: Chen, he said, “understands China’s need for birth control”, and is concerned primarily with civil liberties. “I don’t think,” Cohen added, “we should associate Mr. Chen with one specific religious organization or with one particular political cause, however important it is.” Nevertheless, he said, there had been countless attempts to recruit him. The Washington Post’s Sandhya Somashekhar reported on Tuesday on efforts variously to draw Chen into or to keep him out of the maelstrom of US politics:

Allies of the self-educated lawyer, who also championed the environment, the rights of the disabled and other causes, say Chen defies American political categories. As groups including antiabortion advocates have begun reaching out to Chen, his supporters fear he could be used as a political football by those hoping to capitalize on his dramatic story.

“My message is, don’t ruin this man with American politics,” said Bob Fu, a Texas pastor and friend of Chen who was instrumental in drawing attention to his situation.

Supporters have advised Chen that abortion is a perennial and bitterly divisive issue in the United States, especially during election years. “In the end, though, he’ll have to decide what he’ll want to say,” said Jerome A. Cohen, law professor at New York University and another friend who is advising Chen. “This man is fearless, and he’ll speak out what he thinks. We’re not trying to shackle him.”