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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