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Cover Stories Series 2011> Sichuan Reconstructed> In-depth
UPDATED: June 7, 2011 NO. 23 JUNE 9, 2011
Rebuilding Families
Newborn babies provide a brighter outlook on life for couples who lost their only child in the earthquake

SAME BLOOD: With lasting love for Xu Mengyi (left), who lost her life in the 2008 earthquake, Deng Li finds the birth of her second daughter, Xu Xiaoli, makes it easier for her to reclaim a life worth living (COURTESY OF DENG LI)

Deng Li smiles when she talks about her daughter, Xu Mengyi, a lively and considerate girl who loved school and tackling household chores without parental nagging. The two attended the same primary school—the elder a Chinese language teacher and the younger a student—in Hongbai Town, nestled at the foot of a mountain in Shifang City, Sichuan Province.

"She is the pride of my life," said Deng, an elusive smile barely spreading across her face. "She would be a big girl today, maybe taller than me."

Deng will never know what her daughter would be like as an early teenager. Xu was killed on the afternoon of May 12, 2008, when an 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan, killing about 70,000 people and leaving more than 18,000 missing. Hongbai, separated by only one mountain range from the epicenter, was hit hard.

Today, Xu would be 11 years old, but for Deng, her daughter will always be eight years old.

Like Deng, more than 8,000 mothers lost at least a child to the quake. In many cases, that deceased was a family's only child.

Since the late 1970s, China has implemented a family planning policy, limiting most urban couples to one child. Families in rural areas can have two children, provided the first child is a girl. Exceptions have been made for ethnic minority people or those in remote areas.

Trying again

Seventy-eight days after the quake, the Standing Committee of the People's Congress of Sichuan Province made a decision, encouraging families who lost their only child or whose child was disabled to consider having a new baby.

A one-stop reproduction service project was launched in all quake-stricken regions in Sichuan—14 cities, 54 counties and 1,041 towns. The Ministry of Finance and the National Population and Family Planning Commission established a special fund of 100 million yuan ($15.42 million) to cover involved families' expenses for medical checkups, treatment and any necessary surgeries. The Sichuan Provincial Government also allocated 29 million yuan ($4.47 million) for it. Tailor-made services were offered to couples who wanted to have a new baby.

Hongbai was one of those towns. Deng did not hesitate to seek help from the local population and family planning department.

"I was introduced to some prestigious fertility doctors," Deng said.

Today, Deng is a mother of a 22-month-old daughter, Xu Xiaoli.

In the last three years, more than 70 babies were born in Hongbai, all with assistance from the project, said Xu Zhengtao, a town official.

Among the 4,751 women in quake-hit areas qualified to have a new baby, 4,046 were willing to become mothers again. By the end of March this year, 2,864 babies had been born, said figures from the Sichuan Provincial Government.

"I am lucky to have a second daughter," Deng said. "The process of becoming pregnant and then giving birth was rather smooth. But I know it can be tough for some women."

Xu Youjun, Deng's sister-in-law, had difficulties when she and her husband tried to have a new baby. They lost their 15-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son in the earthquake.

The process of conceiving was complicated for Xu, as she aged beyond the commonly recognized prime childbearing years and was suffering from post-quake depression. Poor temporary living conditions added to the difficulties. The couple had to travel to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, to seek help. After many hospital visits, injections and surgeries, Xu, gave birth to a daughter using in vitro fertilization at the age of 39.

Gaining new hope

Many women like Xu Youjun were entitled to free treatment and assisted conception services, and free child delivery and post-natal care. Many welcomed twins as a result of in vitro technology.

In Shifang, 268 babies had been born as of May 13. Among them, 10 were from in vitro procedures. Another 21 women were expecting, said the Shifang Family Planning Bureau.

In rural Sichuan, sterilization is common after a couple has one or two children. For sterilized couples, surgeries were provided to help them reclaim reproduction capabilities. Local population and family planning departments also provide customized services for high-risk women during the middle and late stages of the pregnancy. Emergency plans are designed for every new mother to guarantee a safe delivery. After birth, community workers visit new mothers, providing parental advice and maternal materials. Local governments also bought life insurance for these new born babies till the age of six.

In spite of these efforts, some couples, realizing that the time to have a child may have passed because of the wife's older age, have considered adopting a child.

Be it their own or an adopted orphan, a new child provides renewed hope.

Deng said this was true. In the first year after the devastating earthquake, Deng said she barely had the will to go on with life.

"My heart ached from the loss of my daughter," she said. "My husband and I didn't talk about her much. It's just too much to bear sometimes."

For a time, Deng asked the headmaster to permit her teach any other classes beside the one her daughter had attended. It was too difficult to see the faces of her daughter's peers.

Three years later, Deng said she was able to face that class, which is now in the sixth grade.

Deng said the love she had for her first daughter who was snatched from her three years ago would be everlasting. But her new daughter has made it easier to resume a normal life and overcome that unbearable grief she experienced after the earthquake.

"She is my focus now," Deng told Beijing Review. "After all, life will go on."

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