A new data analysis links COVID-19 to increased risk of pregnancy complications including preterm birth and stillbirth, with the risks rising if infection is severe.
Montreal researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 42 studies involving 438,548 pregnant people around the world.
Authors including Dr. Nathalie Auger of the University of Montreal’s School of Public Health said the data “provides clear evidence that symptomatic or severe COVID-19 is associated with a considerable risk of preeclampsia, preterm birth and low birth weight.”
“Clinicians should be aware of these adverse outcomes when managing pregnancies affected by COVID-19 and adopt effective strategies to prevent or reduce risks to patients and fetuses,” concludes the study, published Friday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
The study says COVID-19 patients were more likely than those without the disease to experience preeclampsia, stillbirth and preterm birth.
Urgent questions for medical community
Compared to asymptomatic patients, symptomatic patients were at double the risk of preterm birth and a 50 per cent increased risk of cesarean delivery.
Meanwhile, those with severe COVID-19 had a four-fold higher risk than those with a mild case to experience high blood pressure and preterm birth.
The reason for increased risk was unclear, but researchers said it could be because the virus that causes COVID-19 stimulates an inflammatory response affecting blood vessels.
The team also called for more research to better understand disease pathways that explain these associations.
“Lack of knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 infection in pregnancy has raised urgent questions among obstetricians and neonatologists about the risk of maternal, fetal and neonatal morbidity and mortality,” the study says.
“There is an urgent need for evidence to guide clinical decisions.”
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC), has said all governments should grant access to the COVID 19 vaccine to pregnant and lactating individuals.
“The benefits of getting vaccinated for individuals at higher risk during pregnancy or while breastfeeding outweighs the risks of not receiving the vaccine,” SOGC said.
The permanent birth control device Essure has been off the Canadian market for four years — but pain and serious complications linger among some women who are seeking compensation from a manufacturer that says it intends to defend its product “vigorously.”
Keri Ponace of Regina is one of the 10,000 Canadian women who opted for the device.
But Ponace, 43, said she believes that decision led to years of pain from a series of subsequent health issues.
“I didn’t know it was going to feel that bad, and I didn’t know I was going to be stuck in my bed for as many years as I was. Essure is like the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” she said.
Ponace is not alone.
More than 700 Canadian women have gone after Essure’s owner, multinational pharmaceutical company Bayer, for compensation as a result of complications they say are from the birth control device.
“I think they should still be held accountable, and they should be responsible [for] the products that they back up,” Ponace said.
Canadian women will have to fight for that accountability in the courts. But it’s a different story for women in the United States who had the same experience.
Claims handled differently in Canada, U.S.
Bayer doesn’t admit any liability despite pulling the device off the market in Canada in 2017 and everywhere else around the world by 2018, but it’s agreed to pay $ 1.6 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits in the U.S.
It hasn’t settled any lawsuits in Canada, though, and doesn’t intend to.
Watch “No More Tears: The Essure Legacy” on The Fifth Estate on CBC-TV Thursday at 9 p.m. or stream on CBC Gem.
In a statement to CBC’s theFifth Estate, Bayer Canada said that the U.S. settlement reflects a commercial decision driven in large part by the unique aspects of the U.S. mass tort system, including the high costs of U.S. litigation.
“The U.S. settlement announced on August 20, 2020, has no impact on pending litigation in Canada, as Bayer’s decision to resolve the U.S. cases is based significantly upon factors that are specific to the U.S. legal system,” read the February statement.
“Bayer believes that it has meritorious defences and intends to defend itself vigorously in the remaining litigation.”
Toronto personal injury lawyer Renée Vinett is representing just over 100 women in a mass tort lawsuit — which involves consolidating numerous similar lawsuits — against Bayer.
She says she’s not surprised by the response.
“We simply have to go through the litigation process and fight the good fight,” Vinett said.
“We will vigorously litigate this in hopes of getting some sort of relief, if you can call a monetary relief, relief in this situation … just to get some sort of justice for these women who have lost so much as a result of a product that should never have been on the market.”
The other approximately 600 women seeking compensation are part of a country-wide proposed class-action lawsuit. They’re appealing a court decision last year against allowing their case to be certified. A class action in Quebec with about 47 women represented by the same firm has been certified, allowing it to go ahead.
Chronic abdominal and pelvic pain, excessive bleeding and autoimmune responses in women who have metal allergies are just some of the symptoms experienced by Vinett’s clients.
“Oftentimes, at least the clients I’ve spoken to, have small children and they’re trying to get on with their life and care for their family, and they are incapacitated by the side effects or complications of Essure,” she said.
A non-surgical procedure
Like so many women looking for birth control, Ponace took the advice of her doctor to have Essure implanted.
Doctors and the company that manufactured Essure claimed it was a safe and easy option compared with tubal ligation, which is surgery to close a woman’s fallopian tubes — more commonly known as having the tubes tied.
Essure was designed to work by inserting a two-centimetre coil into each fallopian tube. Scar tissue would form around the coils, closing off the tubes and preventing sperm from meeting an egg.
It was promoted as a non-surgical, non-invasive sterilization procedure that could be done in the doctor’s office in just 15 minutes.
But six months after the implant in 2012, Ponace said she was in pain — leaving her stuck either on the couch or in a fetal position on her bed, which made work and caring for her five children difficult.
In 2016, she convinced her doctor to remove her tubes containing the coils, but that didn’t relieve the pain.
“It’s like I have two screwdrivers drilling me in the sides of my hips … or somebody just took a knife and pushed it and twisted it,” Ponace told the Fifth Estate in 2018.
WATCH | The experience of having Essure coils removed:
Regina woman Keri Ponace disappointed permanent birth control device led to a hysterectomy. 0:44
After asking for an X-ray of her pelvis, as advised by a large online community of other women struggling with Essure, it was discovered that Ponace had a one-millimetre metal particle left from Essure lodged in her uterus.
Unable to remove just the fragment, Ponace ultimately had to undergo a hysterectomy.
‘It was completely traumatizing’
Ponace first shared her story in 2018, when a Fifth Estate investigation found that insufficient information about Essure and the adverse reactions women were experiencing put some women’s health in jeopardy.
At the time, she was just weeks away from having the hysterectomy.
More than three years later, Ponace has been able to gain back what she values most — spending time with her kids.
“I can take my kids to the park and spend quality time with them, they’re not constantly seeing mom [in] pain … it was heartbreaking for them before. I can move on and move forward,” she said.
Although Ponace says she is feeling better physically, she hasn’t been able to completely put the ordeal behind her.
“Psychologically, I’m upset because I feel like there’s still a part of me missing, right?
“It was completely traumatizing all the way to the bitter end,” Ponace said. “That was the scariest thing in my life that I had to go through.”
New data backs claims
Essure, which came on the Canadian market in 2002, was originally developed by a small U.S. company called Conceptus Inc. and then sold to Bayer in 2013.
More than one million devices were sold globally, with the majority of sales in the U.S.
Bayer said it pulled the device because of commercial reasons driven by “a decline in patient demand.”
Recent data now backs claims that Essure wasn’t necessarily the safer, permanent procedure it was billed to be.
A post-market surveillance study of 1,128 women mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that 4.5 per cent of women who had tubal ligation experienced chronic pain, but for those using Essure, the rate was double at nine per cent.
The data published last year also found that 10 per cent of women with tied tubes had abnormal bleeding compared with 16 per cent for women with Essure.
The probability that women would have the coils removed after 21 months was one in seven, or 14.3 per cent.
They came out in the summer of 2020, only after women in the U.S. filed lawsuits against Bayer.
The company disputes it was obliged to report those complaints and says that some were actually duplicates.
Information about issues with Essure historically hasn’t always been easy to come by.
Health Canada, which approved Essure in 2001, maintains an online registry where patients and doctors can report complications. However, only manufacturers and importers were mandated to report what they refer to as “adverse events.”
As previously reported in 2018, It took CBC News two years through access to information requests to obtain raw data from Health Canada on problems involving Essure.
As a result of CBC’s reporting that was part of a larger global media collaboration called The Implant Files, it’s now mandatory for hospitals to report any side-effects from medical devices such as Essure.
There are currently 98 adverse event reports associated with Essure on the database.
Dr. Nicholas Leyland, a physician in Hamilton, says transparency would have been helpful.
“If we had known that there were many patients who were experiencing difficulty, we could have been looking into this and investigating it much more diligently in the early years of this device, rather than learning about it, you know, at least 10, 12 years after the fact,” he said.
The obstetrician-gynecologist at McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences has done about 100 Essure implants himself — and only reported adverse events to Health Canada when patients came back for removal.
“In fact, this is a huge deficiency in the system in the United States as well as in Canada, because it’s voluntary reporting of any adverse events, and many of the doctors really don’t know the definition of what an adverse event would be associated with such a procedure,” Leyland said.
“So I think that’s something that working with Health Canada and the U.S. with the FDA, that physicians in the medical profession really need to streamline this process to make sure that we’re always aware of any complications with devices or problems with medications, etc.”
Women have become ‘E-sisters’
It was online and in private Facebook groups that women began to associate their symptoms with Essure. It was a space where their claims were validated and it wasn’t all in their heads, like so many say they were told by their doctors.
They’ve banded together, some referring to themselves as “E-sisters.”
There are more than 500 members in the main online Canadian group, along with various other provincial groups.
Amy Vandermeulen, 46, of Regina says it’s important for women to be armed with information, which is why she decided to use her platform to talk about Essure.
She hosts a community television show called The Four on Access Communications and has recently dedicated one of her segments to discussing problems with the device.
“I feel it’s important to me because it’s bringing out awareness, like some women who may be going through the same [or] similar health issues and if they have those coils in them … I think they need to be informed,” she said. “I wasn’t informed. I didn’t know where to look.”
Vandermeulen says she suffered from a range of symptoms as a result of the implant in 2012, including headaches and cramping, and was hospitalized numerous times.
“The excessive bleeding just kept going and going.”
WATCH | Spreading awareness to women:
Community television host discusses Essure device on her program 0:51
She ultimately had to have a partial hysterectomy in 2017 to remove the coils. Vandermeulen says she just needed them out.
But coil fragments were left behind after the partial hysterectomy, which led to a second surgery in 2020.
“I hope people — other women will reach out, so I can maybe help guide them and send them in the right direction, if they’re not sure where to turn to,” Vandermeulen said. “Just to be that added support for other women.”
Dave McIntosh is in “uncharted territory”: he’s able to hold his newborn son close, but his wife, unconscious in a hospital bed due to complications from COVID-19, cannot.
Gill McIntosh, 37, remains in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Abbotsford, B.C., in an induced coma and on a ventilator after her emergency C-Section.
After starting to feel sick in the first week of November — chalking her symptoms up to pregnancy-related pressure and pain late in her third trimester — Gill took a turn for the worse, becoming nauseated and unable to eat.
While Dave McIntosh looked after their daughter, the mother-to-be went to the hospital for treatment.
The last communication McIntosh had with his wife came in the form of a text saying she was being taken in for an emergency C-section due to complications from the novel coronavirus.
WATCH | Dave McIntosh says they’re unsure how his wife caught COVID-19:
A B.C. woman is fighting for her life, after contracting COVID-19 from an unknown source while pregnant. Her baby was born via emergency C-section, she is in an induced coma, and her husband has a message for everyone: COVID-19 can hit anyone, even those who take every precaution. 1:59
Mother in induced coma
Days later, Gill is in stable condition, though she’s still in an induced coma and on a ventilator.
“This is uncharted territory for me,” McIntosh said. “When Gill and I got married, I knew she was the one. We were going to have a family together. The whole plan has fallen apart here.”
The pair met eight years ago, were married in 2017 and welcomed a daughter to their family a year later.
The abrupt decline in her health, he said, has thrown their lives into turmoil.
“She’s everything to me,” he said. “She’s my wife, she’s my life.”
Hearing Gill would be on a ventilator shocked him, and McIntosh said he had previously equated the condition with being on life support.
“That’s kind of when it all started sinking in.”
He and his daughter immediately went into quarantine as a result of his wife’s hospitalization, but both have since tested negative for COVID-19.
Newborn son is healthy
Their son is healthy and remains in hospital for monitoring. Dave McIntosh was able to feed him a bottle on Saturday night and said he hopes to bring the infant home next week.
The support from friends and family has been overwhelming, he said, noting one friend has started an online fundraising campaign that has already exceeded its $ 50,000 goal.
Gill McIntosh’s diagnosis has not been traced back to an exposure event, and her husband said the family is unsure how she contracted the virus.
Her hospitalization comes amid rising case numbers and public health restrictions in British Columbia. The province recorded a new single-day record of 617 COVID-19 cases on Friday, the last day for which data was available, bringing the province’s total to 20,985.
Dave McIntosh said his wife’s abrupt decline and the sudden stress on their newly expanded family should serve as a cautionary tale for those who have previously dismissed the threat the virus poses.
“It’s been going on so long that everyone gets a little bit complacent,” he said of the pandemic and the resulting protective measures, noting he and his family followed public health guidance diligently for the sake of the expected baby.
“But now, that clearly hasn’t been enough. Everybody needs to, as much as it sucks, shut everything down right now.
“It’s time to really start taking this seriously.”
Magnetars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe, and that’s saying something. These stellar remnants are neutron stars, but whereas most neutron stars are quiet and keep to themselves, magnetars have magnetic fields billions of times more powerful than Earth’s, and they may be the source of the mysterious Fast Radio Bursts astronomers have been tracking in recent years. We’ve never seen a magnetar come into being, but a new high-energy event several billion light-years away might be the first — a kilonova that signals the merging of two neutron stars.
Neutron stars, white dwarfs, and black holes are all stellar remnants that we hear about on a regular basis. The fate of a main-sequence star to become one of these objects is primarily a function of its mass. The largest stars become black holes, while slightly smaller ones become neutron stars. A star like the sun will eventually collapse into a white dwarf. A neutron star can also end up as a pulsar or magnetar, depending on its properties. Other neutron stars can merge with each other to become magnetars, and that’s what astronomers think they’ve spotted.
Scientists believe magnetars produce their ultra-strong magnetic field thanks to superconducting material sloshing around inside. The effects of magnetic fields this powerful are almost unfathomable, so naturally, the formation of such an object is a highly energetic event. The leading theories claim magnetars can come into being when two small-ish neutron stars collide. If they’re too large, the resulting object is a black hole, but with just the right mass, you end up with a magnetar.
Last May, astronomers detected a gamma-ray beacon from an object over 5.5 billion light years away. This matched the theoretical signature of a magnetar formation, so teams around the world turned their most powerful instruments toward the source, including NASA’s Swift Observatory in space, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The best data came from none other than the always-reliable Hubble Space Telescope.
Hubble successfully detected the infrared emission (see above) from the formation of heavy elements like gold, platinum, and uranium. That’s another thing astronomers expect to see in a neutron star collision, sometimes known as a kilonova. The team notes that the IR signal was much brighter than anyone expected — 10 times brighter, in fact. For some, this could be confirmation of magnetar formation. If the neutron stars had formed a black hole, the IR emission would have been within expected ranges.
This research still needs to be vetted by other teams, but it’s available on the preprint arXiv.org server. If confirmed, this would be the first time we’ve seen a magnetar born, and the massive energy output recorded by Hubble could reveal a great deal about how these bizarre objects work.
When the pain in her shoulders and weakness in her right leg started two years ago, Giovanna Ippolito thought it was just part of getting older — that’s until the 46-year-old’s doctor ordered an X-ray that showed a five-centimetre long, broken needle embedded in her spine.
It was a medical error that took more than a decade to discover — after medical staff at the time failed to report it.
“When I saw it on the X-ray just protruding out like that … it made me sick to my stomach. It’s scary to know that it’s just sitting there in my spine,” the Bolton, Ont., woman, said of seeing the X-rayin October 2018.
Exactly when the needle was left in Ippolito’s spine is unclear, but she says she’s only had something injected into her back twice — during the birth of her son in 2002 and her daughter in 2004.
Ippolito says she believes the needle broke off when medical staff at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital in nearby Richmond Hill (called York Central Hospital at the time) administered a spinal block or an epidural during one of the births.
She’s now locked in a battle with the hospital for answers and accountability. But experts say, with a system that’s stacked against Canadians harmed by medical errors, it’s likely no one will have to take responsibility.
More than 132,000 patients experienced some kind of medical harm — something both preventable and serious enough to require treatment or a longer hospital stay — in 2018-19, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, a government-controlled corporation that collects information on the country’s health systems.
A five-centimetre needle is found in a woman’s spine at least 16 years after giving birth — which hospital staff failed to report at the time. Experts say with Canada’s medical malpractice system stacked against patients, it’s likely no one will have to take responsibility. 2:22
‘It’s just sheer pain’
Ippolito’s been trying for years to get someone to listen and take action as her symptoms get worse.
“It’s just sheer pain that I get,” she said.
Her doctors can’t directly link the pain she’s experiencing to the needle, and say its location and the scar tissue that’s grown around it make it too dangerous to remove.
In January 2019, she met with hospital officials. But instead of getting answers, she says she was handed a CD-ROM with 174 pages of her patient records, full of medical jargon and illegible, handwritten notes — and told there was no record of the needle breaking, so there was nothing the hospital could do.
It’s possible the needle was left behind without anyone realizing. But patient advocate Francesca Grosso says if medical staff involved in the births noticed half the needle was missing, it’s unacceptable that key piece of information was left out of Ippolito’s records.
It’s unclear who might be responsible. Three anesthesiologists were involved in the births.
That means Ippolito will have a hard time getting anyone to take responsibility under the present system, Grosso says.
“Why was it not identified who actually did what? She’s missing key elements that she doesn’t control,” said Grosso, chair of the advocacy group Patients Canada.
Go Public has learned one of the anesthesiologists involved in Ippolito’s care was cautioned in 2016 by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) for falling short on care standards, including failing to adequately document his care of patients.
Despite Ippolito giving MacKenzie Health permission to answer Go Public’s questions, it declined to do so.
In an email, a spokesperson wrote, “out of respect for this process and confidentiality, we do not comment publicly on any matters related to specific patient cases.”
Generally speaking, the hospital said it meets all “legislated requirements” when looking into cases and that its “processes include case reviews and are accompanied by open discussion with patients, families and/or caregivers as it relates to complaints about medical errors.”
Ippolito says that’s not what happened in her case. Go Public’s investigation found at least one of the anesthesiologists involved wasn’t even asked about the case as part of a review or at any other time.
The other two didn’t respond to our emails, including the anesthesiologist who was cautioned by the college.
After failing to get answers from the hospital, Ippolito contacted the CPSO.
The college tells Go Public that, in order to do an official investigation, it would need the hospital’s help figuring out which of the doctors involved in the births is responsible.
Ippolito also consulted a lawyer and was told there was no point trying to go through the courts.
From 2015-19, only one per cent of patients who initiated malpractice lawsuits won in court; 36 per cent were settled out of court, and more than half — 57 per cent — were dismissed, discontinued or abandoned, according to an annual report by the Canadian Medical Protective Association, the organization that funds doctors’ legal defence. It is largely funded by taxpayer dollars.
Most cases don’t even make it to court, according to malpractice lawyer Sloan Mandel.
“It is unfair … these are David-and-Goliath battles. You’re going up against an entity, the Canadian Medical Protective Association, that sets aside billions of dollars to fight cases just like this one,” said Mandel, referring to Ippolito’s situation.
Those who have looked at the issues say it’s time for a new approach, citing France, New Zealand and other places that use a no-fault compensation system.
Then, patients would be compensated quickly and fairly without having to take doctors to court, according to to Elaine Gibson, a health law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“A whole system kicks in, an administrative scheme where [patients] receive compensation very quickly,” said Gibson, who wrote a 2016 paper outlining the benefits of a no-fault system.
But provincial and territorial governments don’t seem open to the idea. Go Public asked health ministries across the country if they have considered a no-fault compensation system — most had not.
Ontario says it hired former Justice Stephen Goudge to look into the province’s medical liability system in 2017. The province says he found, “the present fault-based system provides fair and appropriate compensation.”
Quebec doctors came forward in September 2019 supporting a no-fault system, but the province’s Health Ministry says, to date, nothing has come of it.
‘I worry about the future’
Ippolito remembers the day her current doctor showed her the X-ray. She says nurses were coming in and out of her hospital room asking if she was “the woman with the needle in her back.”
She says every time she feels pain, she’s reminded the needle is there and can’t be removed. She worries what that will mean for her future.
“What’s it going to be like in five years?” she said.
“Where’s the accountability? But I won’t go down without a fight.”
Ippolito is now going through the patient ombudsman in Ontario to see if that office can help get the answers she’s looking for — but its scope is limited only to issues Ippolito may have had with the patient relations department at the hospital.
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Politicians around the world have called for a United Nations probe into a Chinese government birth control campaign targeting largely Muslim minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang, even as Beijing said it treats all ethnicities equally under the law.
They were referring to an Associated Press investigation published this week that found the Chinese government is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities, while encouraging some of the country’s Han majority to have more children. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China — a group of European, Australian, North American, and Japanese politicians from across the political spectrum — demanded an independent UN investigation.
“The world cannot remain silent in the face of unfolding atrocities,” the group said in a statement.
The AP found that the Chinese government regularly subjects minority women in Xinjiang to pregnancy checks and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands. New research obtained by The Associated Press in advance of publication by China scholar Adrian Zenz also showed that the hundreds of millions of dollars the government pours into birth control has transformed Xinjiang from one of China’s fastest-growing regions to among its slowest in just a few years.
The AP found that the population control measures are backed by mass detention both as a threat and as a punishment for failure to comply. Having too many children is a major reason people are sent to detention camps, documents and interviews show, with the parents of three or more ripped away from their families unless they can pay huge fines.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called for a UN and State Department investigation, saying the Chinese government’s birth control campaign “might meet the legal criteria for genocide.”
According to a UN convention, “imposing measures intended to prevent births” with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” is considered evidence of genocide. The last colonial governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, told Bloomberg Television that the birth control campaign was “arguably something that comes within the terms of the UN views on sorts of genocide.”
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee called the forced birth control “beyond deplorable,” and said that “a nation that treats its own people this way should never be considered a great power.” U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris wrote a letter urging the Trump administration to respond to an “alarming” AP investigation, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Ro Khanna also called for action.
U.S. President Donald Trump told China President Xi Jinping he was right to build detention camps to house hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities, according to a new book by former national security adviser John Bolton. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the reports of forced birth control for minorities were “shocking” and “disturbing” in a statement Monday.
“We call on the Chinese Communist Party to immediately end these horrific practices,” he said.
Allegations ‘fake news,’ says China
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian fired back on Tuesday by calling Pompeo “a brazen liar,” saying the Uighur population had more than doubled since 1978 in response to criticism of Xinjiang’s birth control policies.
“If Mr. Pompeo is telling the truth, how can he explain the big increase in the Uighur population?” Zhao asked.
For decades, Xinjiang’s population grew quickly, as minorities enjoyed more lax birth control restrictions than Han Chinese. But in just three years, new measures have caused the birth rate in Xinjiang’s Uighur-majority areas to plunge, and it is now well under the national average.
Zhao also said the American government had been responsible for “genocide, racial segregation and assimilation policies” on Indigenous Americans. University of Colorado researcher Darren Byler said the Chinese state-orchestrated assault on Xinjiang’s minorities does echo past birth control programs.
“It recalls the American eugenics movement, which targeted Native and African Americans up until the 1970s,” he said. “China’s public health authorities are conducting a mass experiment in targeted genetic engineering on Turkic Muslim populations.”
In response to the AP story, which he called “fake news,” Zhao said the government treats all ethnicities equally and protects their legal rights. Chinese officials have said in the past that the new measures are merely meant to be fair, with the law now allowing minorities and China’s Han majority the same number of children.
However, the AP’s reporting found that while equal on paper, in practice Han Chinese are largely spared the abortions, sterilizations, IUD insertions and detentions for having too many children that are forced on Xinjiang’s other ethnicities, interviews and data show. Some rural minorities are punished even for having the three children allowed by the law.
British members of Parliament debated Xinjiang in the House of Commons on Monday, with both Labor and Conservative politicians urging the U.K. Foreign Ministry to adopt a stronger stance against the Chinese government. Nigel Adams, the British Minister of State for Asia, said the reports added to the U.K.’s “concern about the human rights situation in Xinjiang” and that it will be “considering this report very carefully.” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne also told Australian broadcaster SBS that the reports “further compounded” their concerns.
Bill Browder, CEO of investment fund Hermitage Capital Management and brainchild of the Magnitsky Act, asked the U.S. government to level sanctions against Chinese officials, calling the birth control campaign part of a broader assault he called “vile persecution.”
The Chinese government is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children.
While individual women have spoken out before about forced birth control, the practice is far more widespread and systematic than previously known, according to an AP investigation based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members and a former detention camp instructor. The campaign over the past four years in the far west region of Xinjiang is leading to what some experts are calling a form of “demographic genocide.”
The state regularly subjects minority women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands, the interviews and data show. Even while the use of IUDs and sterilization has fallen nationwide, it is rising sharply in Xinjiang.
The population control measures are backed by mass detention both as a threat and as a punishment for failure to comply. Having too many children is a major reason people are sent to detention camps, the AP found, with the parents of three or more ripped away from their families unless they can pay huge fines.
After Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born Kazakh, had her third child, the government ordered her to get an IUD inserted. Two years later, in January 2018, four officials in military camouflage came knocking at her door anyway. They gave Omirzakh, the penniless wife of a detained vegetable trader, three days to pay a $ 2,685 US fine for having more than two children.
If she didn’t, they warned, she would join her husband and a million other ethnic minorities locked up in internment camps — often for having too many children.
“To prevent people from having children is wrong,” said Omirzakh, who went deep in debt to scrape together the money and later fled to Kazakhstan. “They want to destroy us as a people.”
Birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunged by more than 60 per cent from 2015 to 2018, the latest year available in government statistics. The hundreds of millions of dollars the government pours into birth control have transformed Xinjiang from one of China’s fastest-growing regions into one of its slowest in just a few years, according to new research obtained by The Associated Press in advance of publication by China scholar Adrian Zenz.
“This is part of a wider control campaign to subjugate the Uighurs,” said Zenz, an independent contractor with the nonprofit Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Xinjiang government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, Beijing has said in the past that the new measures are merely meant to be fair, allowing both Han Chinese and ethnic minorities the same number of children.
Under China’s now-abandoned ‘one child’ policy, the authorities had long encouraged, sometimes forced, contraceptives, sterilizations and abortions on Han Chinese. But minorities were allowed two children — three if they came from the countryside.
That changed under President Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader in decades. Soon after he came to power, the government revised birth regulations so Xinjiang’s Han Chinese could have two or three children, just like minorities.
While equal on paper, in practice Han Chinese are largely spared the abortions, sterilizations, IUD insertions and detentions for having too many children that are forced on Xinjiang’s other ethnicities, interviews and data show. Some rural Muslims, like Omirzakh, were punished even for having the three children allowed by the law.
Forced birth control
Fifteen Uighurs and Kazakhs told the AP they knew people interned or jailed for having too many children. Many received years, even decades in prison.
Once in the detention camps, women are subjected to forced IUDs and what appear to be pregnancy prevention shots, interviews and data show.
One former detainee, Tursunay Ziyawudun, said she was injected until she stopped having her period and kicked repeatedly in the lower stomach during interrogations. She now can’t have children and often doubles over in pain, bleeding from her womb, she said. Ziyawudun said women at her camp were made to undergo gynecology exams and get IUDs, and their “teacher” told them they would face abortions if found pregnant.
In 2014, just over 200,000 IUDs were inserted in Xinjiang. By 2018, that jumped more than 60 percent to nearly 330,000 IUDs. At the same time, IUD use fell sharply elsewhere in China, as many women began getting the devices removed.
Chinese health statistics also show a sterilization boom in Xinjiang.
Budget documents obtained by Zenz show that starting in 2016, the Xinjiang government began pumping tens of millions of dollars into a birth control surgery program. Even while sterilization rates plummeted in the rest of the country, they surged seven-fold in Xinjiang from 2016 to 2018, to more than 60,000 procedures.
Zumret Dawut, a Uighur mother of three, said after her release from a camp in 2018, authorities forced her to get sterilized. If she didn’t, they told her she’d be sent back to the camp.
“I was so angry,” she said. “I wanted another son.”
The birth control campaign is fuelled by government worries that high birth rates among Muslims leads to poverty and extremism in Xinjiang, an arid, landlocked region that has struggled in recent years with knifings and bombings blamed on Islamic terrorists. Though the program adopts tactics from China’s ‘one child’ policy, the campaign unfolding in Xinjiang differs in that it is ethnically targeted.
“The intention may not be to fully eliminate the Uighur population, but it will sharply diminish their vitality, making them easier to assimilate,” said Darren Byler, an expert on Uighurs at the University of Colorado.
Some experts take it a step further.
“It’s genocide, full stop,” said Uighur expert Joanne Smith Finley, who works at Newcastle University in the U.K. “It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but it’s slow, painful, creeping genocide.”
Scientists have identified thousands of exoplanets thanks to instruments like the Kepler Space Telescope. With each new world we examine, we learn more about how planets develop across the universe. Studying planets as they form would be the holy grail, and astronomers may have spotted a place where we can do just that. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released images of a primordial solar system with swirls of gas that could be the beginning of planetary formation.
Astronomers have good evidence that planetary formation takes place in the disc of dust and gas around young stars, but they’ve never been able to take sufficiently sharp images to identify the small eddies that signify a planet is coming into existence. Several years ago, the Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) scanned a star called AB Aurigae, located 520 light-years away from Earth. The data suggested this young star might have small disturbances in the primordial disc suggesting planetary formation. The ESO sought to confirm that with the Very Large Telescope (VLT).
The VLT has a relatively new adaptive optics instrument called SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch). This allows the telescope to capture higher quality images with better contrast, but only in a very narrow field of view. That’s perfect for taking a close look at a single star, though. The ESO conducted an observational campaign of AB Aurigae in late 2019 and early 2020, resulting in the newly released images.
The images of the AB Aurigae system showing the probable location of a forming exoplanet.
The orange swirl is the dust and gas orbiting AB Aurigaem. The dark region near the center is about the size of Neptune’s orbit around the sun — even with SPHERE, we can’t zoom in beyond this level without losing detail. However, it’s sufficient to make out a probably baby planet. The brighter “twist” highlighted above is precisely what astronomers expected a planet might look like at this stage of development. Over eons, material will gather together, exerting gravitational influence on nearby space. Eventually, it bulks up and becomes spherical by absorbing everything else in its orbit, and then it’s what we’d call a planet.
The ESO is currently building the 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope (they’re clearly great at naming things) to build on the work of LAMA and SPHERE. When it comes online in 2025, the Extremely Large Telescope should be able to take a closer look at this probably infant exoplanet. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could also take a closer look. It will have a smaller mirror, but its vantage point in orbit will be much better.