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The pill felt like a pebble clenched between Lijun's forefinger and thumb. It was an intractable little nugget, both liberator and agent of death. The abortion tablet contained within its indifferent core the power to define the course of the young woman's life.
Nobody but her boyfriend knew she was pregnant, and Lijun intended to keep it that way.
She eyed the glass of water resting within arm's reach on the nightstand.
"You cannot keep the baby," she remembers telling herself. "You have to take the pills. It will not be painful. You will still be a very happy young girl and have a new life after this. Later on, you can find someone and you can marry. And at that time you can have a baby and everything will be made up for."
The simple gesture -- popping the pill and washing it down -- would be absurdly easy compared to her days of torturous brooding over what to do. The fleeting act would quell the battle in her mind. But she knew she would have to live with the cold finality of her decision.
Lijun's parents had already gone to sleep for the night. Her bedroom was quiet save for the faint sounds of nighttime traffic in her sprawling, ancient city on China's east coast. It was in this room, her haven from the teeming world since she was a girl, that Lijun had learned she was pregnant through a self-administered test.
The discovery was devastating. The birth would create a nasty scandal. For starters, Lijun's boyfriend was married and already had a child. Adultery is a crime in China; out-of-wedlock babies are even more taboo. Under the country's draconian population control policies, a single woman cannot get permission to give birth. If she has a baby anyway, she faces reprisals from the government and scorn from her peers.
Lijun's boyfriend had been unequivocal and brutally frank in his assessment of the crisis: Lijun needed an abortion, period. She understood his position. The local apparatus of the Communist government could do much to disrupt their lives for breaching official policy. Party officials might hound Lijun to terminate the pregnancy. The illicit couple could be fined, and stripped of housing, work and services such as health care. Because she worked for an American company, Lijun felt she probably was safe on the job front. But other threats, including the immense shame her parents would feel, made her shudder.
The child would likely face dim prospects in life. He or she could be excluded from school, work and other basic privileges.
Despite the strong arguments, Lijun hardly saw the issue in black and white. Unwittingly, she had formed powerful maternal feelings for the life developing in her womb.
"[My boyfriend] thought it was very easy to solve -- just take some medicine, there's no pain. That's true," she says. "Probably for men, they will think that it's just some kind of unborn creature, so you cannot call that life, you cannot call that a human being. But for a woman, especially a mother, of course she will think, 'That's my child.' So that's different."
Lijun wrestled with the dilemma for over an hour, shifting restlessly in her bed. Then, in an instant of clarity, she asked herself a question that framed the problem in starkly simple terms: If swallowing the pill is really the answer, why am I having to work so hard to convince myself?
"I knew that [having an abortion] was not something from the bottom of my heart. So why did I need to persuade myself? If I did believe those things, I didn't need to persuade myself," she says. "I knew that from the very beginning but just tried to let myself face the reality."
She cast the pill into the nightstand drawer, overcome by a momentary flood of relief.
"That time is the most stressful time -- not knowing which way to choose, going back and forth," she says. "Once you make the decision, even if you choose the hard way your heart feels more relaxed. The burden on your mind is not so heavy. After that, you just concentrate to find a way to work it out."
Nursing a Coke at a Houston taqueria, Lijun is a picture of natural poise in a black print dress. She is courteous by disposition and speaks good English in a soft voice that rises and fades like a lullaby. She claims Scarlett O'Hara as one of her role models.
Lijun laughs when she's trying to shore herself up in the face of a painful truth or when she thinks she has astounded her interviewer with some strange tale from the Far East. Her circumstances have changed dramatically since that night of torment across the globe, but her fears are largely the same. Lijun, which is not her real name, cites those fears in asking that her true identity not be published. She also declines to disclose other particulars of her story, which begins far from Houston, in the large Chinese city of her birth.
Her parents were teachers and members of the Communist Party. Lijun's earliest years were lived in the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's brutal campaign to shake up the party apparatus that inflamed generational strife, divided families and tossed the country in chaos. She recalls times being lean, but says her family was better off than many. They lived in a sparsely furnished apartment in a state housing complex and subsisted on government quotas of rice, meat, sugar and other staples.