Abortion rights and sex selection

Sex selective abortions have been touched on a few times here already.  But we’ve never really focused on the philosophical issues they raise.  John Turri sent us an excellent article, and the suggestion that we take up these issues.  (That was a while ago, and I’m only now getting around to it– sorry!)  Here’s the thing… most feminists support abortion on demand.  But if we take that really seriously we also need to support abortion for reasons of sex selection, where that is genuinely what a woman wants.  Now, we can raise lots of worries about whether this is really an uncoerced choice (thanks for the link, Jender-Parents); and we can strongly criticise the social forces that bring about this preference if it’s a genuine one.  But when we get done with that, what do we say about the cases where it really is uncoerced?  (I would suspect that there really are such cases, by the way.  And in some circumstances I can even imagine it being a morally motivated decision.  If girls and women are treated badly enough in one’s society, mightn’t it seem deeply immoral to bring another girl into existence to be brutally mistreated?) I’m sure there must have been good things written on this topic by feminist philosophers. Does anyone know of some?  This is clearly one of those cases that shows the weakness of framing abortion just in terms of ‘choice’, but I’d like to know more about ways to approach it.  (It may also show the weaknesses of thinking just in terms of coerced/uncoerced.)

9 thoughts on “Abortion rights and sex selection

  1. A lot of the conversation on rights and choices rests on the unspoken assumption of a society where men and women are already seen as equal or at least near-equal participants in child bearing and child rearing. But I don’t think there’s any dilemma even in the cases of “honest choice”, as you put it. Because these “honest choices” are rarely *true* choices.

    Some societies where to be born a girl is to be born a slave, *are* the same societies in which the concept of gender equality is laughable, where there are enormous social pressures on a pregnant woman to “produce a boy”. In New Delhi, India’s capital city, the neighbours showed up to commiserate with my mother when she gave birth to a second daughter, my sister. I was six years old, I remember: there was literally a crowd of weeping women around her. My dad had to shoo them away somehow without offending them, even though we were all boiling mad. I personally know families which have beaten a new mother unconscious for giving birth to a girl.

    In the interests of a woman’s physical safety as well as in the interests of the future life of a baby girl, I would fully support sex selective abortion in India. It’s not “honest choice”, but it is choice nevertheless. Let India wake up one day like China and discover there are no women for her sons to marry. That’s when they will finally begin to truly believe their empty rhetoric of honoring women.

  2. Great questions, Jender. Not an answer, but another data point: The NY Times recently reported that the trend toward selecting against girl babies is reversing in South Korea. And the reasoning is interesting:

    The most important factor in changing attitudes toward girls was the radical shift in the country’s economy that opened the doors to women in the work force as never before and dismantled long-held traditions, which so devalued daughters that mothers would often apologize for giving birth to a girl.


  3. I’m not a philosopher but don’t you philosophers usually defend statements like, if feminists support pro-choice in general for abortions, then they should support sex-selection abortions? I don’t see that this is necessarily so. Maybe there’s an assumption there that philosophers know about (and I don’t) about the reason why feminists (in general!?!) support abortion on demand but it would help lurkers like me for you philosophers to explain statements like that. My assumption is that there isn’t one feminist reason and that certain reasons would mean for consistency’s sake that one would need to support sex-selection abortions; however, I can imagine other reasons to support abortion on demand that wouldn’t necessarily lead to supporting sex-selection abortions, e.g. some feminists may support abortion because not to do so would contribute to oppression and might say that in an ideal equal society, the decision about abortion might be handled differently and not necessarily support the my body my decision rule. Thanks.

  4. […] The philosophical issues of sex-selective abortion – The Feminist Philosphers present a couple of articles on sex selective abortion. I’ve posted a bit before around the reasons why respect for women and their rights to reproductive freedom requires a blindness to the reasons why a woman chooses abortion (or, for that matter, chooses another option for an unwanted pregnancy). This post in complemented by this interesting post they had up earlier on how gendercide in China might, paradoxically, be resulting in women’s advancement there. As peppermint from BreadnRoses notes, however, there was already a strong official push for formal equality in Mao’s movement, so the causal link between sex-selective abortion may not in fact be that strong. […]

  5. Nandini– what horrible tales. Thanks for making the hideousness of it all very vivid. SL– I completely agree with you that there are various reasons for supporting abortion rights, and that not all of them would lead to acceptance of sex-selective abortions. I didn’t mean to suggest that they would. However, there is a widespread (not universal) feminist view that women should be allowed to choose on demand for any reason (as long as it’s a genuine choice). My thought was just that a proponent of *this* view would be stuck accepting sex-selective abortions. Nice distinctions you’ve drawn, by the way! Are you sure you’re not a philosopher?

  6. It strikes me that we need the moral vs. legal distinction here. We can support the political *right* to on-demand abortion — not just that it should be *allowed* but that *access* should be facilitated — yet without endorsing such choices from a moral point of view.

    Moral reactions, I would suggest, always occur in the context of particular (more or less public) relationships; it might make sense for an intimate friend to urge against some decision even while strangers should not second-guess it.

    Indeed, many decisions in oppressed circumstances (and also in oppressor ones) involve a residue of unaddressed moral concern. When I imagine a female-specific abortion carried out for fear of female oppression, I am reminded of Sethe in Morrison’s novel _Beloved_ (about which the legal question is another matter!). If that decision is not accompanied by moral regret, then something is amiss. But most of us can only raise general concerns rather than reach specific moral verdicts about such conflicted choices.

  7. Thanks, Elise. I think you’ve got to be right about the importance of the legal/moral distinction. We can have all sorts of subleties in our moral judgments, while still the law needs to be clearly in favour of a woman’s choice.

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