SAN ANSELMO, California- Sex-selective abortion occurs when a woman terminates her pregnancy because the fetus she is carrying is considered to be a disadvantageous sex, usually meaning the fetus is female. Many people have called for an end to the practice and procedures that support abortion based on the sex of the fetus, but some human rights groups have taken a different approach to the situation, noting that steps to combat sex-selective abortion can take away women’s rights.
Sex-selective abortions occur primarily in Asia and Southeastern Europe, though analysts believe that the practice could occur in other regions where preference for male children is strong. In India, there are 927 first-born girls for every 1,000 first-born boys and for families having their third child the ratio of girls to boys is 250 to 1,000. Advertisements that ask questions like “girl or boy?” are banned and Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are not allowed to provide advertising platforms for sex-selection technology. The Indian Parliament has also regulated the medical use of sex-determining technology and its advertisement.
In January, the Chinese government raided an underground service in China that enabled pregnant women to determine the sex of their child and abort the fetus based on the results. Reports estimate over 1,000 women used the service in 2013.
China’s “one child” policy has supported the idea that boy children are more valuable than girls, leading to sex-selective abortions, the abandonment and killing of girls and trafficking of both genders. In Southeast European nations, there are indicators of sex selection and boy preference as well. In Albania, the ratio of girls to boys is 100 to 112, and a study estimates that as many as 15,000 female fetuses were aborted from 2000 to 2010.
Kristina Voko, professor and researcher at the University of Tirana, explains the issue of sex-selection in Albania. She states, “Boys are expected to support the parents financially, provide for their security and protect their honor, while girls are expected to provide emotional support and care for ailing parents. Although girls are seen as a great source of emotional support and affection for the parents, boys are seen as necessary.”
In the United States, politicians debate whether there is a problem with sex selection within immigrant communities, and the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, which would have outlawed sex-selective abortion in the U.S., was introduced and defeated in the House of Representatives in 2012. Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, condemned what she saw as political hypocrisy, stating, “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.”
Democratic Representative Diana DeGette asserted, “I don’t support abortion for gender selection. I don’t know anyone who does. Maybe that’s because there is no problem in this country of abortion for gender selection.”
While many would agree with DeGette’s sentiment on sex-selective abortion, others believe that the issue is more complicated.
As Slate’s William Maletan puts it, “Absolutists on both sides need to think carefully. If you’re pro-life, how far are you willing to go in regulating abortion? If you’re pro-choice, how far are you willing to go in leaving it unregulated?”
Aruna Kashyap, an Asia researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, writes that she is sometimes perplexed while listening to debates about sex-selective abortion, which often simultaneously advocate for universal abortion rights and an end to sex-selective abortions.
Kashyap sees these ideas as being in conflict, and she points to governments that curtail access to second-trimester abortions (especially for women who already have daughters) and women being arrested for getting an abortion based on the sex of the fetus as problematic areas that curtail the rights of women.
Sarah Ditum of The Guardian asserts, “As the conscious and legally competent entity in the conception set-up, it’s the woman’s say that counts, and even the most terrible reason for having an abortion holds more sway than the best imaginable reason for compelling a woman to carry to term.” She continues, “In a world where it’s possible to end a pregnancy safely and legally, it seems like rank brutality to force anyone to carry to term against her will.”
Ditum poses the question of whether sex selective abortion should be regulated in societies where women have a genuine and substantial reason to be afraid of having a girl, places where dowries could severely affect family wealth or a “livid patriarch deprived of a male heir could turn his fury on both mother and daughter.”
In these cases, Ditum states that a woman would not only be justified but also rational to seek an abortion. She believes that if a person is pro-choice and pro-women’s rights, such a position should protect women who have sex selective abortions and who therefore have full control over their bodies. In her native Britain, Ditum notes that sex selective abortion is a non-issue, but that, “In counties where it is a serious concern, it’s a symptom of brute misogyny. And the answer to such misogyny is never to deny women power over their own bodies.”
Reports suggest that curtailing women’s access to abortions lead to more illegal and unsafe procedures. In India, 90 percent of the roughly six million annual abortions are performed illegally, and such procedures add 10 percent to the country’s annual maternal deaths. Johanna Westeson of the Center for Reproductive Rights, argues, “Exchanging one manifestation of inequality with measures that produces more inequality guarantees that women will pay the price…”
Kashyap also believes the way to end sex selective abortion is not to regulate the procedure, but to eliminate the motivation behind it. She states, “Sex selective abortion is merely a symptom of the root problem: a deep-seated preference for sons based on social, cultural, economic, and historical factors…Unless sustained policies and efforts to alter such attitudes are introduced, the demand for sex-selective abortions will not be eradicated.”
– Kaylie Cordingley