Choosing Abortion and Sex Selection: Two Different Moral Problems

Calling Canada a “haven” for sex-selective abortions, a recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) ““It’s a girl!”— could be a death sentence” recommended withholding information about the sex of the fetus from pregnant women until 30 weeks, to prevent the problem of sex-selective abortion. Sex selective abortion (which almost always means terminating a pregnancy because the fetus is female) has become a common practice in many Asian countries and it’s finding root in Canada with new immigrants, says the CMAJ editorial.

This has some Canadians worried. An Angus-Reid poll says that of Canadians asked 60% think “there should be laws which outline whether a woman can have an abortion based solely on the gender of the fetus.” There are currently no legal obstacles to abortion in Canada—though access for some women may be limited by such factors as geography. There are two different approaches to this question. One is to limit access to information on which the choice is made, i.e. don’t tell people whether the fetus is male or female as the CMAJ recommends. The other is to limit access to abortion if one believes it’s being done for reasons of sex selection. The first option would be hard to enforce given Canada’s proximity to the United States where such information is easy to obtain for a price. The second option strikes me as intrusive and dangerous.
What surprised me though was the hand wringing among my feminist friends who wondered whether abortion ought to be forbidden if the abortion was being undertaken in order prevent the birth of a female baby. As much as I worry about the undervaluing of female life, I didn’t find myself hemming and hawing at all. I was easily prepared to stick to my preference for a policy of unrestricted access. I found myself prepared to defend the meta-principle (preserving women’s choices) even when the exercise of that choice resulted in actions that I think set back women’s interests.

I realized too that I do this all the time. Lots of things women do individually are bad for women as a group (and sometimes bad for themselves individually) and yet I think restricting the freedom to choose isn’t the right answer. As feminists we want to change the context in which those choices are made and in this case that means making it less likely that will couples will value male children more than female children. In fact, denying women the freedom to choose seems to me to perpetuate beliefs about women’s lives being less important and less valuable than those of men.

In a thought provoking Globe and Mail commentary, Why care less about the disabled fetus?, Roxanne Mykitiuk compares sex selective abortion with the common practice of aborting fetuses with disabilities. What makes the two cases any different, she asks. In the case of sex selection Mykitiuk puts the question this way: “Do we, as Dr. Kale suggests, ban the disclosure of information about sex until after 30 weeks, or do we implement policies and educational strategies targeting the sexist thinking (daughters are a burden, daughters cost too much) and practices (dowry, celebration of only the birth of boys, passing down the family name only through boys) underlying sex selection?”

My strong preference is for the latter approach.

6 thoughts on “Choosing Abortion and Sex Selection: Two Different Moral Problems

  1. As both a (Canadian) feminist philosopher and the president of my local Planned Parenthood board, I’ve thought a lot about such issues. First of all, I quite dislike the rhetoric of choice/freedom to choose around abortion discussions. I think that this language — unintentionally, of course — plays into the hands of anti-choice folks who want to cast women who have abortions as capricious or selfish. I prefer to think about abortion rights in large, systemic terms, and in terms of harm reduction. With respect to the latter, there’s lots of international evidence that laws restricting abortions actually correlate to a higher incidence of abortions. If a woman decides to have an abortion, she’s going to have an abortion. It will just be an illegal — and hence unsafe — abortion. (The noteworthy exception to the women-who-opt-for-abortions-have-abortions-regardless-of-the-law principle, by the way, is in the U.S. where there is evidence — See “The Economics of Second Trimester Abortions” series recently linked here — that certain recent specific laws restricting abortions have led to an increase in unintended births. Nonetheless, Canada, where there are no legal restrictions on abortion, still has a substantially lower abortion incidence than the U.S., where — state by state — there are tons of such restrictions.) Put simply, fewer restrictions on abortion means both fewer abortions and fewer unsafe abortions. From a harm reduction standpoint, this alone warrants making/keeping abortions legal, regardless of the reasons for them.

    Considering the matter systemically further supports this position. Abortions occur within a broader socio-economic context that includes such things as sexual health education (and education simpliciter), family income, gender roles, etc. Cultivating an environment in which women are economically stable, well-educated, empowered and autonomous is essential to reducing the incidence of abortion. Obviously, sex selection abortions do not help to cultivate such a context, nor are they likely to occur in such a context. It is precisely socio-cultural systems that, in one way or another, undermine women’s moral worth, intellectual capacity and autonomy that lead to sex selection abortions. But the solution to this is not to reduce women’s autonomy by imposing new laws on them or limiting their capacity for informed consent. Such measures only reproduce the kind of system that leads to pre-natal sex selection to begin with. It’s absurd to think that the way to end the practices of an objectionable system is to reproduce that system.

    Finally, it of course bears remarking that, even if it were desirable (which it isn’t) to institute laws limiting Canadian women’s ability to have abortions for sex selection reasons, such laws would set the precedent of putting abortion in Canada’s Criminal Code. I have pro-choice American friends who live in Canada and who would like to see the right to have an abortion enshrined somehow in Canadian law. I think that this is a big mistake. One of the great merits of the Canadian approach to abortion is that the law treats it as it would any other clinical procedure. This perfectly legal medical procedure no more deserves specific mention in the law than does any other. Instances of malpractice are of course covered by tort law (as they should be), but otherwise Canadian law is silent on abortion. Any legal limitation on abortion (even for what seemed like salutary reasons) would open the door to further such encroachment. And, as I hope I’ve made clear, such encroachment would not prevent abortions. It would only imperil women’s lives. And, no one who is pro-life would want to do that. …right?

  2. Shannon, what I have seen of the country-comparison literature proposing that increased restrictions on abortion do not lower the incidence of abortion suggests to me that a variety of distinguishing factors are inadequately controlled for. Studies in and among the United States strike me as more reliable for a number of reasons. You have a large number of separate legal regimes to compare, a relatively high frequency and variety of changes in legislation to study, a relatively high degree of uniformity of social and cultural factors (compared to international studies), relatively reliable and comparable reporting methodologies, relatively comparable systems of enforcement, and so forth. The fact that US-based studies tend to indicate that many forms of restrictions on abortion *do* lower the incidence of abortion suggests to me not that the US is a “noteworthy exception” or outlier, but more likely that it manifests a general rule which is obscured by methodological problems in evaluating international datasets.

  3. Beginning of December, a program aired on ABC 20/20 about India’s deadly secret. It was about 40 million girls who have vanished. All aborted before they could take their first breath. Their crime was that they were girls. As you know the gender ratios is India are terribly skewed about 914 girls per 1,000 boys. In Punjab it is about 833 girls per1,000 boys. Unfortunately this happens amongst the privileged and the educated also. The only woman who has brought cases against her in-laws and husband is Dr Mitu Khurana. Please watch her story and sign her petition for justice. Please give those 40 million girls silenced forever, a voice. Please forward this to as many friends as possible.

    After you sign the petition, there will be a request from the site for a donation. This donation is totally discretionary and does not in any way or form affect or benefit Dr Mitu Khurana. All she is asking for is your support (signing this petition) so that pressure can be put on the Indian authorities that the whole world is watching them in total disbelief as they make a young mother run around in vain for four years in search of justice

  4. From the OP: “[Roxanne] Mykitiuk puts the question this way: ‘Do we, as Dr. Kale suggests, ban the disclosure of information about sex until after 30 weeks, or do we implement policies and educational strategies targeting the sexist thinking (daughters are a burden, daughters cost too much) and practices (dowry, celebration of only the birth of boys, passing down the family name only through boys) underlying sex selection?'”

    It’s worth considering that, pace Mykitiuk’s implication, those are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

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