Sex-selective abortion and the right to choose

// 23 February 2012

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Photo of a US pro-choice rally. People are standing on the steps outside a government building carrying pro-choice placards and a big pink banner that reads Trust Women.The Telegraph today revealed the findings of an undercover investigation into whether clinics would allow women to have an abortion based solely on their desire not to have a boy or a girl. The investigation was clearly undertaken in the context of the anti-choice campaign to reduce access to abortion, with the Telegraph making reference to the fact that:

MPs have raised concerns over the growing commercialisation of abortion clinics and David Cameron and Mr Lansley are under pressure to accept proposals that women should receive independent counselling before a procedure takes place.

The investigation only targeted nine clinics, and found three doctors willing to refer the women for abortion. I really don’t think this can be extrapolated to mean that sex-selective abortion is a big issue in this country. However, it does throw up a moral quandary for feminists. Female infanticide through sex-selective abortion is a serious global problem. Yet at the same time, the pro-choice position states that only the woman who is pregnant gets to decide what happens to her body, and therefore if she wants an abortion for whatever reason, she should be able to access one.

For me, the idea that someone would terminate an otherwise wanted pregnancy due to the sex of the baby is horrible. However, the reasoning behind this decision may be complex and, as ever with abortion, no one other than the pregnant woman herself can really understand the position she is in.

I think we also need to recognise that, with regards to female infanticide, the underlying issue is sexism, not access to abortion. Stopping women accessing legal abortions will not stop female infanticide; but challenging sexist social and cultural beliefs may very well do.

Based on the above, I have to conclude that much as I dislike the thought of someone terminating a pregnancy because they’re having a girl or a boy, women should be able to legally have an abortion in these circumstances. I actually think the much-maligned doctor in the Telegraph’s video is a model of pro-choice good practice: she ensures the woman is confident in her decision and then refers her to have the termination, “no questions asked”.

Remember that in the UK a woman is strictly speaking only allowed to have an abortion in the event that the baby would be born with a serious disability or if there would be a greater risk to her physical or mental health, or to that of her existing children, if she carried on with the pregnancy (details here). We don’t have abortion on demand, and if that’s what we want, we have to accept that some women will have terminations for reasons we may very much dislike.

Photo by ProgressOhio, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Laurel // Posted 23 February 2012 at 4:22 pm

There was a great article on abortion and disability on here which threw up similar difficulties. It’s interesting to contrast abortion rights with the right to choose factors in artificial insemination, like there was a furore when a deaf couple actually wanted to choose the child most likely to also be deaf, which was contrary to the DRs wanting to pick the “healthiest” baby by protocol. When we do IVF with donated sperm cells we already can choose race and certain physical traits, (usually, again, to fit in with the family rather than simple preferences) and I’m not sure whether picking male or female is possible, but either way, it isn’t too simple where to draw the line.

Phoebe Queen // Posted 23 February 2012 at 7:37 pm

The “seriously disabled” get out for late term abortion is just plain eugenics. Wherever ppl stand on choice, the exception that judges it more legitimate to terminate foetuses with impairments like Downs syndrome than foetuses with no identified impairment… Seriously disabled my bum.

Alasdair // Posted 23 February 2012 at 11:23 pm

“I have to conclude that much as I dislike the thought of someone terminating a pregnancy because they’re having a girl or a boy, women should be able to legally have an abortion in these circumstances.”

This is the important part. It’s pretty obvious that the motivation behind the Telegraph’s story was the desire to restrict access to abortion. Those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose must support that right, even if that choice or the reasons for it isn’t always a comfortable one.

Yes, sex-selective abortion is problematic, where (as in China and India) it results in a potentially dangerous gender imbalance; but as you say in the article, the fundamental problem is not with abortion, it’s with sexist societies. The answer is not to restrict abortions (especially since they would still take place anyway), but to build societies that value women and men equally.

Deborah // Posted 24 February 2012 at 8:04 am

Laura // Posted 24 February 2012 at 10:37 am

@ Phoebe Queen – I should have written “what the law views as serious disability”. I certainly don’t think disability means life isn’t worth living.

Shadow // Posted 24 February 2012 at 1:54 pm

Daily Telegraph has a political agenda and that is to maintain male domination and male control over women and their bodies. Abortion is an issue which is central to male supremacist societies continuing to enact their pseudo right of male ownership and male control over all women and girls. The issue concerning ‘sex selection’ of the foetus is not one wherein women are the ones deciding rather as usual it is men who decide and reason is because our misogynistic society like all societies values males as the default humans. This is why women are coerced/encouraged to view having a male child is their sole purpose in life whereas a female child means ‘another useless female men have to support.’

But Daily Telegraph craftily ignores male supremacist policies as to how and why sex selective abortion occurs and also ignores fact male supremacist societies presume their societies (sic) somehow exist without the input of female labour and female skills.

Only women should be allowed to decide for themselves if they wish to terminate a pregnancy and this means ‘deciding without any male coercion/male supremacist dogma/male supremacist cultural justifications.’ It is as simple as that.

Petra Dish // Posted 24 February 2012 at 5:41 pm

“The fundamental problem is not with abortion, it’s with sexist societies.”

Then is it not right to send out a message through the legal system that says “gender selection is wrong because it is sexist”? Is this not one way to tackle sexist societies?

Philosophically women should have the right to choose for any reason; we also need to tackle sexism in society to ensure gender selection doesn’t happen. However, you can’t always have your cake and eat it.

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