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.

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.)

More on Prosperity, Sex Selection and Language

Jender relayed the dismal news that sex selective abortions have risen with the rise in prosperity in India.  According to a report in MS, there may also be a mitigating trend.

Cable television may promote gender equality and reduce domestic violence in rural India, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper. Women who were exposed to cable television over a 6- to 7-month period in India were less likely to report a preference for sons or complacency with domestic violence, and more likely to report autonomy in household decision-making, according to the working paper. In addition, more girls enrolled in school and fertility rates dropped.

The NBER working paper, based on surveys conducted in 2,700 households in the years 2001, 2002, and 2003, indicates that television alters behavior by exposing individuals to a new set of worldviews and lifestyles.

The researchers register the worry that part of what they are seeing is just a change in what the respondents think they are supposed to say, but they think that’s still progress. This observation may remind one of Jender’s comments about the language used to report the original finding. Is changing the language – or what counts as the right thing to say – progress?

My vote is “yes.” To make years or centuries of denigrating language publicly impermissible is a way of problematizing issues. My reasons for saying that are based on experiences with political-geographical areas where racist and sexist language and comments have not been disallowed, and the underlying attitudes remain relatively unexamined.

Changing what one will say to an interviewer may then be a start in the reexamination of views.  It is a small change, but, according to the NBER working paper, one accompanied in this case by positive changes in both girls’ schooling and fertility rates.

What do you think?

Prosperity and Sex-Selection (and Language)

A very grim story, sent by the Jender-Parents: Apparently as people in India get wealthier, sex-selective abortion is on the rise. (The older, cheaper method of female infanticide is still going strong, too, as evidenced by a recent finding of 40 female foetus and baby skulls in a well.) This article serves as a reminder of how complicated things are. Increasing prosperity: Good. Increasing access to abortion: Good. But put these in an unjust context, and the effects may not be so good. This is why it’s vital to look at the total picture, as advocates of reproductive justice urge.

(At the risk (make that ‘certainty’) of being a pedant, I can’t help but notice that the BBC article also offers some interesting linguistic tidbits:

Even though it is illegal in India for a doctor to reveal the gender of an unborn child, the law is rarely enforced.

First, we’ve got the use of ‘gender’ where sex is clearly what is meant, then we get the use of ‘unborn child’ for foetus.)

The AAU sexual assault survey and response rates

Predictably, there’s been a lot of criticism and backlash in the wake of the grim numbers reported from the AAU survey on college sexual assault. And some of that criticism has been apt – there are legitimate worries about the survey’s methodology and legitimate worries about the way the figures are being reported. For example, as critics (as well as the researchers involved) rightly point out, it’s a mistake to us the ‘1 in 4’ and ‘1 in 5’ as established, nationally representative statistics. Whether the reporting of these statistics, though, is a sign of ‘alarmism’ about campus sexual assault or just one of many, many instances of media not reporting social science particularly well is questionable, to say the least.

But, as Jennifer Freyd – responding specifically to an article by Emily Yoffe – points out in the Huffington Post, there are other criticisms that look more like denial tactics. Much focus has been put on the relatively broad definition of ‘sexual assault’ used by the survey. Some of this criticism just misreports what the survey actually studies – it’s very explicitly a survey of non-consensual sexual contact obtained by force, threat, or incapacitation (where this has a specific, stated definition.) So, contra some complaints, if your date kisses you without your permission and you weren’t into it, that’s not something the survey would count as a sexual assault. But it’s definitely the case that the definition of ‘sexual assault’ in play is broader than many people might’ve expected, and will almost certainly include some murky cases. But as Freyd notes, it’s will also exclude other cases:

When it comes to the definition of sexual assault, I agree that one can question the decision to include in sexual contact figures various sorts of non-genital touching. But just as importantly one can also question the decision to exclude from both the one in 10 estimates for perpetration and the one in four estimate for sexual contact, cases where the perpetrator did not use physical force or incapacitation but rather relied on verbal coercions and/or failed to get consent and/or failed to heed verbal refusals to initiate sexual contact. While events involving these tactics were measured and reported on by the AAU, they were not included in the widely publicized estimates. Thus, the category of sexual assault that was publicized may be too broad in one sense and much too narrow in another.

Predictably, critics of the study have focused heavily on the cases where it’s definition of sexual assault might over-generalize, while ignoring those cases where it might under-generalize.

The other main concern raised has been about the low response rate. And certainly the response rate is disappointingly low, and a reason to be cautious about the results. But a common refrain has been that the survey almost certainly over-estimates the incidence of sexual assault, because victims are more likely to respond. Is that true? According to Freyd:

an equally plausible self-selection concern is that those who were sexually assaulted are more likely to avoid the survey. In fact, those of us who research and work with survivors of sexual violence know that avoidance is a hallmark of post-trauma response. The pundits, however, only worry about one sort of bias. They essentially claim low response rate equals a disproportionate number of victims in the same. This claim is fundamentally what we call in science an empirical question. What does the empirical evidence have to say about this?

And helpfully, Freyd crunches some numbers for us:

The response rates varied considerably between institutions (from a low of 9.2 percent to a high of 63.2 percent). There was also variation in estimates of sexual assault victimization (for penetration with force or incapacitation the rates varied from a low of 5.7 percent to a high of 14.5 percent; for nonconsensual sexual contact with force or incapacitation the estimates varied between 12.7 percent and 30.3 percent). But are response rates and victimization rates correlated with one another?

If Yoffe and the other critics are right we should see that as the response rate goes up, the victimization estimates go down. What do we actually find? We can ask whether the most publicized victimization statistic — the rate of female undergraduates indicating they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact involving force or incapacitation — is correlated with response rates for female undergraduates. If there is a systematic bias, such that higher response rates lead to lower or higher estimates of sexual violence, we might expect to see that in this relationship. However, the data paint a clear picture of no significant relationship (although trending slightly positively such that higher response rate is associated with higher estimates – the opposite of Yoffe’s claim; with all 27 schools considered r=.08, ns).

There are plenty of things to question about the AAU survey, and – as for any such survey – the results should be treated with appropriate caution. But the endless focus on only the ways in which the results might be biased toward over-stating the problem of campus sexual assault is beginning to look fairly, well, biased.

C.S.I. Jenkins on love and sex education

In a column in The Globe and Mail, “What’s Love Got to Do with Sex Ed? Maybe Everything” Jenkins writes,

Ontario schools are introducing a new sex ed curriculum this September, one that covers topics such as sexting and consent as opposed to merely the mechanics of sex. Predictably, some parents are vocally outraged.

But among the voices in what’s been called a “coalition of the pure,” some are more interesting than others. Recently The Globe and Mail reported that Michal Szczech, a father of two, is not dismayed by what appears on the new curriculum but by what is missing from it. Szczech is said to be calling for classes that will cover not just sex, but love.

Now that’s not a bad idea. There’s just one huge snag: What do you teach?

Read Jenkins’ column here.

C.S.I. Jenkins is the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, and is writing a book on the nature of romantic love.

Look Who’s Talking (About Women) Now!

Here at Feminist Philosophers, we love Margaret and Helen, two righteous old ladies who are continually tearing strips off anti-woman asshats. Today, they take John Boehner to task for invoking sex-selective abortion, and pretending to care about women. Writes Helen, “The Republican party caring about women?  Margaret, that dog just don’t hunt.”


A sex-selective abortion is just the symptom.  The actual problem is a sex-selective society where men like Boehner and other Republican leaders continue to make women second-class citizens.  Many of the bill’s supporters have rejected equal pay for women and have tried to slash funding for programs that serve women and children.

And, speaking of “sex selection,” it bears observing how many of the bill’s supporters (Boehner included) are men — men who are on the whole getting way more airtime than women when the media turns its attention to women’s issues, as this useful, depressing graphic from 4th Estate makes all too clear:


(Thanks, DF!)



Workshop: Patriarchy and Political Theology

Patriarchy and Political Theology Workshop

We invite applications for a two-day workshop on patriarchy and political theology. What can scholars of political theology learn from gender studies? Why has political theology been so resistant to addressing questions of sex, gender, and sexuality in any serious way? Are there any intersections between queer feminist criticism and political theology, and what would it look like if the two methods were brought together? This workshop will gather a selected group of scholars for two days of focused engagement around the above themes, with the hope that new methods for thinking about and beyond patriarchy and political theology will emerge.

Untenured scholars, alt-academics, and graduate students who have advanced to candidacy are welcome to apply. We are looking for participants coming from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including religious studies, political theory, women’s and gender studies, LGBT studies, ethnic studies, anthropology, history, literature, and theology. The workshop will be held on the campus of Villanova University, March 30-31, 2019. Travel and accommodation costs for selected participants will be covered; support for childcare will be available.

We are particularly interested in applications that move outside the usual boundaries of political theology. To apply, please send a one-page description (up to 300 words) of a question that a workshop of this kind should or could investigate, a list of 3-5 key texts that inform your thinking around these issues, and a CV of no more than two pages. Applications are due by October 30; selections will be made by late November.

Please send application materials or questions to Linn Tonstad ( and Vincent Lloyd (

Sponsored by the Villanova Political Theology Project and the Political Theology Network.

Evolution: survival of the fittest? Maybe not, acording to female birds.

I’ve been watching ducks recently.  Mallard ducks show the remarkable difference beteen the fairly drab female and the quite glamorous male.  Is this just another case of an unfair asymmetry in nature?

Maybe not. An opposing proposal is that what we are seeing is the effect of female avian aesthetics.  Females are generally those who select the partner in a pair.  What we see is the effect of their taste, shared to some extent by females of at least one other species. Namely, human beings.

Another interesting fact is that female aesthetic preference does not always pick out the fitter male bird, fitter, that is, in birdly things like flight.  In fact, it very much looks as though the song of one species is improved by wing configurations that, when increased, create a bird less capable of good flying.

Yale Professor Richard O. Prum argues, as it is put, that sexual selection, unlike natural selection, is not always selection of the fittest. In fact, he thinks it is based on female avian sexual aesthetics.

To grasp his view, a little bit of history is in order. Darwin famously proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, what is often called survival of the fittest. To put it simply, living things vary in their inherited traits, from speed to color to sense of smell. The traits of the individuals who survive longer and have the most offspring become more common. So, over time, the faster antelope have more young, the fastest of them have more offspring, and antelope end up very speedy.

But reproduction isn’t just about surviving and staying healthy long enough to mate. You have to find a mate. And in many species, your mate must choose you. This process is sexual selection. Female birds are often the ones choosing. And their choices can produce male birds that are incredibly colorful, and some that are elaborate dancers or designers of striking boudoirs — like the bower birds. If, for example, females like males with long tails, then long-tailed males have more offspring, and the longest-tailed of those offspring reproduce more. In the end, that species becomes known for its long tails.

Whether he is generally right, there do seem to be cases of sexual selection that can degrade the species. What does this say about the survival of the fittest?

Crudely natural selection is supposed to select for those who meet the challenges in their environment in a way that enhances reproductive success. But if we include getting selected as a mate, then overall fitness need not be enhanced in the species. Or so two articles in the NY Times seem to suggest. See here and here. To be accurate, though, I don’t think anyone writing sees any problem in distinguishing natural from sexual selection. Justifying the distinction is another matter, or so Professor Prum’s reference to free will for female birds could indicate. See the end of the second article:


Once organisms evolve the capacity for subjective evaluation, and the freedom of choice, then animals become agents in their own evolution. One of the hallmarks of autonomy, of course, is the freedom to mess up




NYT on Pogge

With some important details about the hiring procedure at Yale, from Seyla Benhabib.

Professor Benhabib, who served on Professor Pogge’s selection committee, said that she and other committee members had heard about the Columbia case but did not discuss it.

“I didn’t think it was my place to go searching into his history at Columbia,” she said. “Everybody slips once. That was our attitude.”

She added, “In retrospect maybe we should have done more.”

While faculty hiring at Yale involves a complex web of bureaucracy and approvals, the process at the time was overseen by the office of the provost, then led by Mr. Salovey.

For the rest, go here.