NEW YORK (RNS)—When blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng made a daring escape from house arrest and found refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he instantly became a popular hero in the West and a rallying point for human rights activists everywhere.
For abortion opponents in the United States, however, Chen became much more than that. He took on a role as an icon of the pro-life cause—a man whose campaign against forced abortion in China made him a potent champion in the fight against legal abortion in America.
Anti-abortion groups in the United States regularly cited Chen in press releases and fund-raising materials, using Chen's plight—and the slow pace of the diplomatic negotiations that eventually brought him to safety in New York—as fodder for promoting their cause and galvanizing opposition to President Obama.
Conservative media critic Terry Mattingly detected a secular bias in the news coverage, complaining reports ignored Chen's status as "a pro-life activist" and a "Christian activist who sees China's often brutal one-child policy as a violation of human rights as well as religious liberty."
But Chen is not a Christian, and he may not even be what most abortion opponents would consider "pro-life."
That's because Chen's cause in China was not an effort to halt legal abortion per se, but to make Chinese authorities comply with their own laws against forced abortions and sterilizations.
"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 asserted, since Chen's focus is on "the rule of law"—on making China a society that respects its own laws, which routinely are flouted, and on promoting the human rights and dignity of its citizens.
In Chen's two principal public statements since arriving in New York—an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper and an op-ed article in The New York Times—Chen 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."
Chinese authorities initially targeted Chen in 2005 after he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of poor, rural women who said they were subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China's one-child policy. That landed him in jail until 2010, and then he was placed under house arrest, which he escaped on April 22, injuring his foot but still managing to reach the U.S. Embassy.
That prompted an international crisis resolved only when Chen and his wife were allowed to travel on student visas to New York, where he has pledged to continue speaking out for the rule of law in his homeland.
"In the U.S., 'pro-life' connotes opposition to abortion, per se, so Chen isn't an anti-abortion activist in the U.S. sense," Lindsay Beyerstein wrote in the online magazine Religion Dispatches.
Fu echoed that point. "It's very hard to place him (Chen) in a category here."
Still, that hasn't stopped some abortion opponents from trying.
The National Right to Life Committee has cited Chen in fund-raising appeals, telling supporters nothing they contribute "will cost nearly as much as what brave activists like Chen Guang-cheng have been forced to give."
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council welcomed news of Chen's flight to New York by hoping that "Chen's influence extends to his new home, where the inhumanity of abortion is so often ignored."
Whether Chen can avoid being swept up in America's culture wars and election-year battles is unclear. Chen's advisers have been counseling him how to avoid the political pitfalls.
But he already has been asked to tell his story in Congress, and friends say Chen has been swamped with invitations to speak at anti-abortion rallies and to churches and religious groups.
"In the end, though, he'll have to decide what he'll want to say," Jerome A. Cohen, co-director of New York University's U.S.-Asia Law Institute and a friend and adviser to Chen, told the Post.
Chen may even wind up being more supportive of religious groups and abortion opponents than his record so far indicates. Fu noted almost all of Chen's friends in China were Christians who faced government repression, and he said Chen himself might be considered a believer in "natural religion."
"He's sort of a natural pro-lifer," Fu added. The question remains whether that will be pro-life enough for American pro-lifers.