Sex-Selective Abortion Isn’t a “Gotcha” for Feminists

by | June 1, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

by Jarrah Hodge

Yesterday the US House of Representatives defeated a bill (the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act or PRENDA) that would ban sex-selective abortion.

The anti-choice movement in Canada has also ramped up their rhetoric on the issue, calling it “female feticide” and trying to shame feminists who refuse to support a ban. Earlier this year the Canadian Medical Association Journal called for regulations to prohibit Canadian doctors from disclosing the sex of the fetus until 30 weeks, when it would be considered too late to have an abortion.

First, let’s put the Canadian uproar in perspective. Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto’s chair in disease control cautioned that the study the CMA based their opinion on has several limitations. According to the Globe and Mail:

The calculations show the total number of “missing” girls is 245, which equals about 35 births per year, or less than one per cent of the total births to Indian-born women. Dr. Jha said in an e-mail if sex-selective abortion is at play, it is a very small problem and other “important but subtle biases,” such as migration of Indian women about to give birth to a son, could help explain the trend.

Let me be clear. I don’t like that sex-selective abortion happens, because it’s sex-selective. But we can’t start putting bans on women’s motives for having an abortion, because where do you draw the line? As Nivedita Menon, an Indian feminist professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University states:

We seem to be counterposing the rights of (future) women to be born against the rights of (present) women to control over their bodies…Decisions to abort are almost always shaped by factors like…illegitimacy, lack of social facilities for childcare that place a disproportionate burden on women, economic constraints and so on.

If you look at the people championing these bans it’s clear passing a ban on sex-selective abortions would be by no means the end.

Opponents of PRENDA point out that passing a ban, especially like this one that would punish doctors, would result in stereotyping and intimidation of women of colour seeking abortions. It would result in doctors concealing medical information from women. As the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health states:

No woman should ever be scrutinized or interrogated by her doctor based on cultural background, and that is exactly what would happen if this bill becomes law. This policy wouldn’t address the root causes of abortion for sex selection. It would just take away a woman’s ability to make personal, private medical decisions.

If you think that’s alarmist you only have to read  some of the racist comments posted on stories about sex-selective abortion in Canada. Here are a couple.

From the National Post:

 “Here is another case where the problem is imported and remains restricted to culturally alien minorities, but the measures to alleviate it would be extended to the completely innocent majority.  Not unlike the long gun registry and absurd aviation security measures. If the term Minority-Run Canada (MRC) has not been copyrighted yet, I’m claiming it. Diversity, the gift that keeps on giving.”

“Simple……stop Asians from immigrating here……….and while you’re at it………..Muslim’s too please.”

…and the Toronto Sun:

“If they want to move here, yes sterilize them all, the whole family, mama, papa, and kids. And force them to undertake OUR traditions, not forcing us to accept theirs. Stop the building of Mosques etc… Did Columbus have any Muslims on his ship when he discovered North America. And did Jacques Cartier have any Muslims on his ship when he discovered Canada? Hell NO!”

“…..those sneaky bitches….go back to India and pay for your own damn abortion if you don’t want girl babies, why the hell should Canadians pay for it. Beggars can’t be choosey.”

Now granted that’s not everyone but it does show the kind of racist vitriol that could only be further inflamed by this type of ban.

But feminists do believe in taking action, only it’s action to actually address root causes. It’s about changing the attitudes that say a baby girl is undesirable. It starts with improving women’s access to sex education and contraception and raising the status of women by making sure girls and women can access education and employment.  How can a mother value her daughter when she herself is not valued?

Some Indian feminists are pushing for increased access to condoms and greater onus on men to prevent pregnancy. Menon supports crack-downs on clinics that specifically offer gender testing, but in the end states that “feminists must defend women’s access to legal and safe abortions whenever they decide to have them – whatever the reason for their decision”.

As Fern Hill at Dammit Janet puts it (also where I got the title of this post):

As we keep repeating, ‘female feticide’ is NOT a big gotcha for feminists. We’re cool with all choices. Of course, we’d prefer that all choices be accurately informed and freely made.

In the end, choice is choice, and disempowering adult women and refusing to allow them reproductive autonomy is going at this whole thing ass-backwards.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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  • Well put. And not to mention if parents, for whatever reason, are desperate to not have a baby, they will likely achieve that end whether it’s legal and safe or not. So let’s NOT make laws that expose women to home abortions or miscarriage by assault, and their live-born babies to abandonment or infanticide. Instead, lets make laws that ensure every child is fed, educated and valued regardless of its sex, its culture or its parents’ means.

    • Sarah

      So you are saying that one way to ensure that every child is fed, educated, and valued is to allow us to kill the ones that won’t be provided this kind of life? FYI, the “coat hanger” abortions are very rare in places where abortion isn’t legal. However, you always have a dead child in places where abortion is legal.

      • jarrahpenguin

        They might not all be literally “coat hanger” abortions but complications from unsafe abortion account for the deaths of 47,000 women worldwide every year. It causes 13% of the world’s maternal deaths. It’s ridiculous to suggest I or anyone else is gleeful at the prospect of abortion, sex-selective or otherwise. But making it illegal won’t solve the problem. We need to educate men and give mothers the tools they need to make informed choices, to empower women and girls so it becomes clear that the sex of the child doesn’t determine its value as a human being. Supporting the right to choose isn’t about saying abortion is better than every other option in every situation – that’s just absurd, but pro-choicers recognize that we can’t be the ones to decide what’s best for every other woman in every situation.

  • Simer

    It is not about banning abortions. Making a choice in regards to keeping the child or not can be made WELL before 15-20 weeks of a pregnancy. I believe that if you do not want a child at all, then you should make this decision within the first 15-20 weeks. What should be banned is waiting till week 15 or above to find out the sex of the baby and then aborting the one you do not want. Majority of times it is not the females choice to abort a female fetus, rather it is her husband or family pressures which force her to do so. Granted that there are the few women who choose to abort a female themselves, most are forced into it. Moreover, if situations like sex selective abortions are not controlled, it will lead to huge gender gaps within society.

  • Naomi Lazarus

    Let’s also keep in mind that families that so de-value daughters that they will abort a planned pregnancy when they discover the fetus is female are also the families who will neglect and abuse the daughters if they have them against their will. I would far prefer a family to abort a female fetus than to allow her to die of exposure after she’s born, as we’ve heard so many reports of, from all around the world. For me, this is the most telling argument for choice, regardless of the reasons for the choice; unwanted children of either sex, regardless of situation, are much more likely to be abused, neglected, malnourished, and put in foster care (that uniquely torturous brand of abuse).

    The answer here is to promote the status of women, and change the attitudes that de-value baby girls.

    • Sarah

      Seriously, you would rather kill the fetus than have the little girl raised in foster care. What is wrong with women who would rather kill other females instead of having them live less than perfect lives?

  • What if a woman doesn’t know she is pregnant, would it be okay to kill her child right after it’s birth?

    • jarrahpenguin

      Of course it wouldn’t be “okay” – in countries where that is an issue, though, the solution is similar: as Naomi said: “to promote the status of women, and change the attitudes that de-value baby girls.” Without cultural changes around son preference, legal crackdowns are likely to be limited in their impact.

  • Carmel should have directed that question towards Simer, instead of the OP. Simer apparently doesn’t believe that there are women who would never realize that they are pregnant. Of course, if he/she used Google they would quickly find out how very wrong they are.

    Sarah, how can women be valued if they are denied their fundamental right to bodily autonomy? You, and many other anti-choicers, ALWAYS seem to miss the point.

    So, obviously, one way to ensure that female fetuses are valued is to allow the pregnant woman that bears them to make the decisions about who uses her body and when and how it is used, that EVERYONE else is able to do without fear of interference.

    A fetus is not a recognized child, anywhere, in medical OR legal jargon.

    And how do you know how rare coat hanger abortions are, in places where it’s illegal? Have you asked all the women who have had abortions in these places whether or not they used coat hangers to perform their abortions? If not, there are likely VERY few women who would admit to having an abortion in countries such as these in order to avoid being arrested and/or imprisoned. So, your knowledge of stats means jack.

    Seriously, what is wrong with women who would force suffering on other females in order to live the way THEY wish to live?

    If I were given a choice, I’d prefer to take the more compassionate route and prevent someone else from ever experiencing suffering because of my wishes and/or mistakes.


  • Sydney

    this debate can continue forever. Abortion is a CHOICE that a women is allowed to make, it’s called free will. We fight for freedom everyday and as humans we are able to have control over our bodies. I think its wrong to try to control anyones choice. Just because someone is pro chioce doesnt make anyone gleeful about the idea of abortion or sex selective abortion but its not our bodies therefore, we have no say in the matter. It’s wonderful to have your own opinion and you are free to but keep it to yourself, especially in matters as touchy as this one.