Sex Selection in the Name of Women’s Rights?

Sex-selective abortion is the termination of an existing pregnancy on the basis of the unborn child’s gender. Unsurprisingly to any one who considers themselves a feminist, this practice is most often used to prevent the birth of female children, in something colloquially known as “gendercide.” It is a notorious issue in countries like India and Pakistan, where cultural traditions emphasize the importance of male offspring and laws prohibiting gender-specific abortion are either non-existent or unenforceable. It is also a major problem in China, where the combination of a one-child policy and sex-selective abortion has produced the highest gender imbalance in the world. Current data suggests sex-selective abortion is a rising phenomenon in Western democracies as well.

Is sex-selective abortion a form of gender discrimination? It certainly seems discriminatory if the decision to abort is based solely on the gender of the child. If sex-selective abortion is a form of gender discrimination, the ramifications are obvious for pro-choice groups who couch their argument for legalized abortion in language about women’s rights and feminism. They either implicate themselves in gender discrimination by upholding the right to all abortion, even on the basis of gender, or they admit that abortion in some instances may be wrong.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an organization whose avowed purpose is to fight for women’s right to an abortion, advances several arguments in opposition to legislation banning sex-selective abortion:

  1. Bans on sex-selective abortions are ineffective.
  2. Bans on sex-selective abortions threaten women’s lives and health by making abortions harder to obtain for women who need them.
  3. Bans on sex-selective abortions undermine women’s autonomy and shift the focus to less effective solutions.
  4. In the U.S., bans on sex-selective abortion are part of a hidden agenda by anti-choice groups to reduce access.

The first argument is based on the idea that law cannot change entrenched cultural preferences. This is true, to an extent. The act of legislating does not prompt immediate cultural shifts. But imagine if the leaders of the suffrage movement stopped fighting for a woman’s right to vote because a change in voting laws was unlikely to immediately change cultural attitudes toward women. If sex-selective abortion is indeed a form of gender discrimination, then it should be vehemently opposed by all who call themselves feminists, in the hope that it will one day result in gender equality.

The second argument is the classic pro-choice argument disavowing any restrictions on abortion. If the law prohibits a woman from aborting her child based on gender, it will make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions for any reason. This argument does not stand up to logic. If gender discrimination is wrong, and sex-selective abortion is gender discrimination, it should be opposed because it is wrong, not supported because their is a possibility it will impact abortion under other circumstances.

The third argument follows the same logic. Shifting the focus? To what, women’s rights?

The final argument is symptomatic of the paranoia that possesses many in the pro-choice movement. Perhaps they are right, and pro-life groups are really using bans on sex-selective abortions to advance their cause.  If they are, so be it. But supporting sex-selective abortion, a form of gender discrimination, in the name of women’s rights is ultimately a losing battle.