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.