A Question  Of  Duty
A Child Is Born
By Dr. Yin Wong
 
 

The hospital in southern China wasbusy in the early morni
ng of December 24, 1989. As a 24 year-old specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, I had performed two Caesarean and a difficult forceps delivery.

My supervisor had put me in charge of that night's shifts a new and frightening responsibility. I was exhausted and hadn't eaten for about eight hours. Yet when I finally got to the doctors lounge at I a.m., I was too excited to eat or sleep. Instead, I lay in bed marveling at the three new lives I had welcomed into the world. And I thought of my father. He had chosen a profession that, in China, paid little more than 
twice the wages of a street sweeper: he was a doctor. He would often say, "The most noble work a person can do is saving lives." 

My father was a beloved figure in our province, famous for his humility. He wore a workingman's clothes and carried his instruments in a cheap vinyl bag with a broken zipper. His reflex hammer was an ancient model with a wooden handle. He refused to throw it away. "Tools don't make a doctor," 
he told me, "knowledge and compassion do." Now at last growing drowsy, I remembered that it was Christmas Eve. Like millions of Chinese, my parents were Christian. I thought of the times we had celebrated this holy day together: decorating a tiny tree, singing "Silent Night" quietly, so our 
neighbors wouldn't report us and hearing my father whisper the story of the Christ child. I'll call him on Christmas morning, I thought as I drifted off to sleep. I was awakened by a knock at the door. It was the midwife who handled routine deliveries. "Come!" she shouted. "We need you to take care of something! "As I rushed after her, I heard the crying of a newborn baby. 

When I reached the delivery room, a bedraggled woman was struggling to sit up in bed. 
"Don't! Don't!" she shouted in a local dialect. The midwife, a girl of 20 with a ponytail and bad acne, began drawing iodine from a clear glass bottlethrough a three-inch needle into a large syringe. She told me that the woman's abortion had gone awry. The mother, eight months pregnant, already had one 
child a second was forbidden under China's strict population-control law. 

Arrested and forced into the hospital by the local Family Planning Office, the mother had been injected with rivanol, an abortifacient drug. "But the baby was born alive," said the midwife. The cries were coming from an unheated bathroom across the hall. "I asked the orderly to bury it",  she continued. A small hill nearby served as an unmarked graveyard for such purposes. "But he said it was raining too hard. 

The full import of this moment became clear to me. As the obstetrician in charge, I had the duty to ensuring there were no abortion survivors. That meant an injection of 20 milliliters of iodine or alcohol into the soft spotof the infant's head. It brings death within minutes.

The midwife held the syringe out to me. I froze. I had no hesitancy about performing first trimester abortions, but this was different. In the year since joining the hospital staff, I had always managed to let more senior doctors perform the task.

On the bed next to me, the child's mother looked at me with pleading eyes. She knew what the needle meant. All women knew. "Have mercy!" she cried.

With the mother still protesting, I went across the hall to the bathroom. It was so cold I could see my breath. Next to a garbage pail with the words DEAD INFANTS scrawled on the lid was a black plastic garbage bag. It was moving, and cries were coming from inside. Kneeling, I told the midwife to 
open the bag.

I had imagined a premature newborn, hovering between life and death. Instead,I found a perfect 4 1/2 pound baby boy, flailing his tiny fists and kickinghis feet. His lips were purple from lack of oxygen.

Gently, I cradled his head in one hand and placed the fingertips of the otheron his soft spot. The skin there felt wonderfully warm, and it pulsed each time he wailed. My heart leapt. This is a life, a person, I thought. He will
die on this cold floor.

"Doctor!" the mother screamed from across the hall. "Doctor, stop! The midwife pressed the glass syringe into my hand. I felt strangely heavy. This is just a routine procedure, I argued with myself. It isnÕt wrong. ItÕs the law.

All at once, the baby kicked. His foot caught the barrel of the syringe and pushed it dangerously near his stomach. I jerked it away. This is Christmas Eve! I thought. I can't believe I'm doing this on Christmas Eve!

I touched the baby's lips with my index finger. He turned his head to suckle. "Look, he's hungry," I said. "He wants to live."

I stood up, feeling faint. The syringe slipped from my fingers and shattered on the floor, splattering the brownish-yellow liquid on my shoes.

I told the midwife to carry the baby into the delivery room and get him ready to go down to Intensive Care. "I'll ask the supervisor for permission to treat him," I said. I felt certain that the senior obstetrician, a woman in her late 50s with two children, would never harm this child.

It was almost 2 a.m. when I knocked at the supervisor's office. Her voice was groggy with sleep. Opening the door, I quickly explained: "We have a baby boy who was born alive after a rivanol abortion. May I send him to IC?" 
"Absolutely not!" she said from her bed. "This is a second birth!"

"But he's healthy,"  I insisted. "Could you please come take a look?"

There was a pause, then she replied angrily, "Why are you asking me this? You know the policy!" Her tone frightened me. "I'm sorry,"  I said as I shut the door.

In staff meetings, the supervisor had frequently reminded us how important the birth-control policy was. Usually she would disclose that someone in a neighboring hospital had been jailed for allowing the birth of a child without a government permit. But recently there had been a chilling incident involving our orderly.

He was a taciturn, shabby man in his 50s, whose sole job was to bury infants. He was paid 30 yuan apiece. Burying four infants a day, on the average, the orderly earned more than twice the salary of a doctor. "Why so much?"  I once asked a colleague. "Because no one else will do what he does, " she replied.

When I pressed for details, she told me that in cases of abortion failure, the man sometimes had to bury the infants alive. "No matter what happens,"  she explained, "the birth control policy must be obeyed."

Weeks after I learned this, a midwife sent the orderly an aborted fetus, which he stored temporarily beneath a stairwell. While the orderly was out, the baby revived and began to cry. A visiting policeman discovered the child and questioned my supervisor. She told him the infant was only an illegal child awaiting burial. The officer apologized for interfering.
At the next staff meeting, the word went out: "Don't send the orderly any fetuses that might be alive. Give the injection"
Now, filled with foreboding, I headed back toward the delivery room. A man with the weather-beaten face of a peasant grabbed my arm. "Doctor," he pleaded, "this is the son we've always wanted. Please do not kill him!"
I continued down the hall and entered the bathroom. 
The baby was still lying on the floor. "Why didn't you do what I instructed?Ó I asked the midwife.
ÒWho is going to pick up this baby?Ó she replied. She meant a baby that was not allowed to live.
As the midwife looked on in astonishment, I gathered up the crying baby and hurried into the delivery room. I laid him in an infant bed.
 Under an ultraviolet heat lamp, with the help of oxygen tubes that I taped under his nostrils, his hands and feet soon turned pink. Carefully I wrapped him in a soft blanket.

The midwife prepared another syringe this time with alcohol and placed it on a tray next to the newborn's bed. "Don't do this!"  the mother cried again. Grasping the bed rail, she tried to haul herself over the edge. I hurried to her side.
"Calm down," I said, easing her back onto the pillow. Whispering, I added, "I don't want to harm your baby I'm trying to help."

The woman began to cry. "Dear lady," she said softly, "I will thank you for the rest of my life."

Just then, the midwife came over with the clipboard. "What should I put on the report?"  she asked. The last entry read, 
"1:30 born alive."  The chart was supposed to be updated before the midwife went home.

"Don't write anything,"  I answered curtly. Exasperated, the midwife left. I looked at the baby. His cherubic face was ringed by a halo of black hair. This life is a gift from God, I thought. No one has the right to take it away. The thought became so insistent that I had the impression it was being said by someone else. I wondered: Is this how God talks to people?

For the next two hours I stood vigil over the child. Gradually he ceased whimpering and fell asleep. Finally, I went to see the supervisor again. "I'm sorry," I told her, "but I can't do this. I feel it's murder, and I don't want to be a murderer."

The supervisor's voice exploded: "How can you call yourself an obstetrician? Take care of the problem at once!  Don't bother me again!"

With my heart beating wildly, I returned to the delivery room. The baby was still asleep, but when I touched his mouth he wakened to suckle again. "Still hungry, little one?" I whispered. My eyes filled with tears.

Suddenly I felt terribly alone. I thought of my father. Would he support me? Despite the early hour, I went to the pay phone in the lobby and dialed. Both parents listened at one receiver as my words poured out. "I keep hearing God's voice,"  I told them. "This is a life,"  it says. "You cannot be part of a murder."

When I finished, there was a long silence. Finally, my father spoke. "I am proud of you," he said. "I am, too,"  said my mother, crying softly. "But you must be careful! Don't write anything down or leave a record. The Party may want to make an example of you."

I understood. During the Cultural Revolution, when I was eight years old, my father was arrested for saving the life of an official who was considered a "counterrevolutionary."  My father had been exiled to the countryside while my mother was sent to a labor camp. My four-year-old brother and I were left with neighbors. Those years had been hard. I remembered my mother's stories of torture and starvation.

My determination wavered. Then my father spoke again. "You are a child of God, and so is this baby,"  he said simply. "Killing him would be like killing your own brother."
I hung up and hurried back. The delivery-room door had been locked, and the baby's father was pounding on it and screaming, "Don't kill my child!"

 I ran into the delivery room through a side door. There, beside the baby's bed, my supervisor stood with a syringe, feeling for the soft spot. The infant's blanket and oxygen tubes had been stripped away. He was crying violently. "Don't give that injection!"  I shouted as I seized the syringe.
"What are you doing?"  the supervisor yelled."You're breaking the law!"

Instead of fear, I felt a sense of peace."This child committed no crime,"  I replied. "How can you kill him?"
The supervisor gaped at me. Lowering her voice, she said ominously, "If you continue to disobey, you will never practice medicine again."

"I would rather not be a doctor than commit murder,"  I said. "I would rather waive my right to have my own child than kill this one. Then a thought occurred to me. "Why can't  I just adopt him?"

"You have completely lost your senses!"  the supervisor cried. After she left, I swaddled the baby again and replaced the oxygen tubes. He quieted down and his color returned.
At 8 a.m., the hospital administrator arrived at work and was told what had happened. He summoned me to his office. "Why are you unwilling to do your duty?" he demanded. "Are these people friends of yours? Did you take money from them?"

"I don't even speak their dialect!"  I said angrily. "And you can search me for money if you want."

Minutes later, a senior bureaucrat from the local Family Planning Office walked into the room and took a folder out of an expensive attache case. He began to read the text of a local directive on birth control: "Those who obstruct Family Planning officers from performing duties shall be subject to punishment . . . "

When he finished, he looked at me and said sharply, "Do you realize it is illegal for this baby to live?" "None of us has the right to decide that," I said.

The man grew angry. "We are talking about government policy here. You have broken the law!"
"I don't feel I have."
"Very well," he said evenly. "Let's you and I go and give the injection."
"No! "

"You admit, then, that you are breaking the law? If so, I have the right to have you arrested right now!"

Desperately, I searched for an out. I had been on call more than 24 hours and couldn't think clearly. I felt queasy. "I am off duty," I said weakly. "My shift is over. Not true," he said. "You haven't finished your tasks.

"Please," I said. Then I began to cry. My legs buckled, and I fell to the floor. The last thing I remember was a spreading blackness before my eyes.

When I came to, I was lying outside the doctors lounge. It was almost noon. The baby! I leapt up and ran to the delivery room. 

The tiny bed was empty. "Where . . .?" I asked the midwife. "The man from Family Planning ordered us to give the injection," she replied, averting her eyes. Despite all my efforts, the little boy had been killed.

 
 
Reprinted by permission, Reader's Digest, Sept. 1995. 
Copyright © 1995 by the Reader's Digest Ass'n, Inc.