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Sex Selective Abortion

At the outset of any discussion about sex selective termination, it is important to be clear about exactly which abortions warrant the description ‘sex selective’. It is clear to me that most discussions of this topic do not mean to restrict that description to abortions that are carried out because of sheer prejudice or sexism against one sex harboured by the pregnant woman. Indeed, defined this way, I think we would be hard pushed to find many instances at all of SSA requests. Abortion, particularly past the point of sex detection, is attended by all kinds of non-negligible costs. It is at the very least a serious inconvenience, and more often physically and emotionally unpleasant. For many, it is financially costly. All of this makes it extremely unlikely that many women will go to the fairly drastic measure of having an abortion out of a simple preference to bear a child of one sex rather than another.[1] There is therefore a credible assumption that in almost any case where fetal sex is pertinent to an abortion request, some more serious interest of future wellbeing is at stake that is tied to or explained by the sex of the future child. We might take the following examples:

Woman A discovers that her fetus is female. She requests an abortion, reasonably believing that her entire extended family will shun her if she does not have a boy.

Woman B discovers that her fetus is female. She knows that if she gives birth to a girl, she will come under pressure to have more children so as to have a boy. She feels that she already cannot cope with the children she has.

Woman C discovers that her fetus is female. The financial ramifications of having another girl rather than a boy in her culture mean that she and her husband are likely to be left destitute in their old age if they have girls rather than boys. She therefore requests an abortion.

These are all ‘sex selective’ abortions in that they are abortions which would not have been requested but for knowledge of the fetus’s sex, but they are not abortions requested because of a pregnant woman’s personal prejudice against girls. I think that most people intend the term ‘SSA’ to apply to such cases, meaning that they intend it to apply to any abortion in which fetal sex is an essential part of the picture. This is despite the fact that, in each case, it is clear that the fetus’s sex is only one circumstance which, when combined with others, (such as the foreseeable behaviour of family members and the cultural implications of giving birth to girls) propels the abortion request. Indeed, whether abortions such as these are categorized as SSA is, in one clear way, a matter of choosing between descriptions. For instance, we might just as well call Woman C’s abortion a ‘financial preservation’ abortion, naming it after the interest sought to be protected by the abortion (as in ‘risk to life’ abortion), rather than after one of the conditions which, when combined with others, places that interest in jeopardy (the fetus’s sex).

Needless to say, there is widespread moral ambivalence about all abortion for which fetal sex forms part of the explanation. Importantly, this moral ambivalence seems to span the abortion divide. Many of those that are otherwise staunchly committed to abortion rights still often feel moral disquiet about the idea that a fetus would be aborted because of its sex. This common disquiet about sex selection makes for a useful discussion point for opponents of all abortion. Christopher Kaczor, for example, tries to harness the sex selection issue against permissive abortion ethics in general. He writes:

If abortion does not kill a human person, if abortion is, as Warren for instance claims, no more serious than killing a guppy, then abortion of a human because of gender would be permissible.[2]

Kaczor’s key argument is that no one can defend abortion generally whilst making an exception for SSA, which many would presumably to want to do. He claims that most arguments against SSA only succeed on the ‘implicit assumption that a human fetus is a being due moral respect’. But if this is true, he claims, then all abortion, not just SSA, is morally objectionable.[3]

The problem of sex selection can look particularly pointed for those who seek to defend abortion rights on feminist or sex equality grounds. This is because SSA and moral opposition to it is inextricably linked with the worldwide problem of so-called ‘gendercide’ or ‘femicide’.[4] It can hardly be denied that where sex selection is widely practiced, it is overwhelmingly used to select against females. China and India are, of course, the standout examples, where, along with infanticide, selective abortion is used as a means of eliminating females, for obvious cultural reasons.[5] Inasmuch as SSA is inseparable from the practice of ‘femicide’, it seems to pose a serious problem for feminist defenders of legal abortion. How could those discussants defend a practice which terminates the lives of female fetuses because they are female, which reduces the number of women existing in the world, and which seems to be both a symptom of the devaluation of women and, potentially, to contribute to it?

All of this seems to leave liberal and feminist supporters of abortion rights in a bit of a bind. If they endorse the popular view that sex selection is morally repugnant and ought to be illegal, they compromise their general position that reproductive control through abortion is both morally permissible and an essential requirement of sex equality. In particular, they would be forced to give up the claim that abortion should be available to all pregnant women as of right, whatever their reasons. But the alternative approach of defending the availability of SSA will seem to be a significant own goal, especially for those who defend abortion rights on feminist grounds. Since we cannot deny the reality that SSA is predominantly used to select against females, they may find themselves defending a practice which functions to entrench sex inequality in all manner of ways.

Shifting to the anti-abortion side, the question may well be asked whether there is some measure of inconsistency about the special level of interest in SSA displayed by opponents of abortion choice, and in the suggestion, by that camp, that SSA is especially morally repugnant. Against the background assumption that the fetus has a strong right to life, why is SSA any morally worse than any other kind of abortion? If abortion really amounts to unjustified homicide, as many philosophical opponents of abortion claim that it does, then it hard to see why the individual reasons behind an abortion would make a difference to its moral permissibility, except in the very exceptional circumstances when abortion meets the conditions for justified homicide (outlined in chapter 3). An unjustified homicide that is nonsexist is no more morally permissible than one which targets the victim because of her sex. This gives rise to a puzzle about why opponents of abortion would regard SSA as any worse than abortion for all kinds of other reasons, as their special focus on the issue implies.

Of course, it is open to opponents of abortion to answer that they do not regard sex selection as morally worse than abortion for any other reason, such as that the pregnant women simply does not wish to have a child at this point in her life. But this admission will make it harder to harness common judgements about the special moral objectionableness of sex selection in argument for the general immorality of abortion.

In fact, I think that ideological opponents of abortion can offer an explanation for why sex selection is especially troubling, even in light of their general opposition to abortion based on the moral status of the fetus. That explanation could proceed by analogy with aggravated assaults. Qua homicide, all unjustified homicides are equal so far as they are in being morally impermissible. Nevertheless, whilst holding to the ‘equal impermissibility’ view, one can still acknowledge that homicides motivated by racism, sexism, or homophobia are uniquely disturbing and worthy of special consideration, and, especially, public policy attention, for all sorts of reasons. This does not imply that non-aggravated homicide—where no such characteristics influenced the assailant’s motivations—is any less harmful to the victim or any more permissible an action. Perhaps an opponent of abortion can apply a similar analysis to SSA and liken it to a kind of aggravated assault based on the victim’s sex. An analogy with aggravated assault would enable opponents of abortion to continue to underscore the uniquely morally disturbing elements of SSA whilst maintaining their broad commitment to the moral impermissibility of almost all abortion.

On the face of it then, it appears that the burden of explanation regarding sex selective termination still rests with the philosophical defender of abortion, not the opponent. The challenge is how to explain the apparent wrongness of SSA without committing oneself to any claims which entail the moral impermissibility of all abortion, such as the claim that the fetus has a strong right to life.

  • [1] It is far more plausible to think that women might avail themselves of less costly methods of sexselection, such as selection of embryos for pre-implantation in fertility treatment, in order to secure asimple sex preference.
  • [2] Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion (2nd edn, Routledge 2015) 211. 8 ibid.
  • [3] 9 See ‘Gendercide: The Worldwide War on Baby Girls’ The Economist (4 March 2010). The term
  • [4] ‘gendercide’ was coined by Mary Anne Warren in her 1985 book: Mary Anne Warren, Gendercide: TheImplications of Sex Selection (Rowman and Allanheld 1985).
  • [5] See, for example, Sital Kalantry, ‘Sex Selection in the United States and India: A ContextualistFeminist Approach’ [2013] UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs 61.
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