Robyn Urback | April 13, 2016
There is something about aborting a fetus because she is a girl, as opposed to aborting a fetus for any of the other innumerable reasons women decide to terminate a pregnancy, that makes many people — including the staunchest of pro-choice advocates — acutely uncomfortable. Part of it, I think, has to do with the way that we think of the fetus. It is much harder to think of that baby as just a clump of cells when we know that she has a sex — something we obviously can’t ignore when we’re talking about sex-selective abortion.
But more than that, I think what distinguishes sex-selective abortion from abortion for nearly any other reason is that it is driven entirely by who that child is, or will become. Usually when we talk about abortion, the focus is the woman and her choices. In Canada, women can choose to terminate a pregnancy for any reason: some feel they are too young, or too old, or not suitably financially secure, or would prefer to focus on their careers, or simply don’t feel like having a child or being pregnant — now or ever. In all these cases, the woman’s quality of life is the deciding factor, not the baby’s, and there is some consensus that it’s better to end the pregnancy than bring an unwanted child to term. In cases of sex-selective abortion, the decision has nothing to do with the mother’s quality of life, and everything to do with who the mother wants that child to be.
The only other comparable scenario is where abortion is sought for a baby that has been prenatally diagnosed with a debilitating physical or mental disability. But even in those cases, the decision is usually a reluctant one, made by parents who want to spare their child a life of unnecessary suffering. Perhaps the same justification could be used for sex-selective abortion in countries where girls can expect to be mutilated, abused and subjugated for their entire lives, but this is Canada, where girls and boys grow up to enjoy the same, equal fundamental rights and freedoms. One could attempt to make the case that aborting female fetuses in Canada prevents another girl from growing up in a family where she will be seen as second-class, but that is just about the worst conceivable way to remedy an unacceptable cultural phenomenon. In fact, rather than remedy it, it indulges it.
This week, a new Canadian study revealed particular patterns among babies born to Indian immigrant mothers that suggest these women might be choosing to abort female fetuses — particularly in cases where they already have two or more daughters. According to the study, the normal ratio of male births to female births in Canada is about 105:100. Among Indian-born mothers with two girls, the ratio jumps to 138:100. With three girls, it becomes 166:100. The study’s authors estimate that over the past 20 years, 4,472 baby girls are unaccounted for.
The suggestion that sex-selective abortion is happening in Canada is not new: in 2012, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal urged doctors to keep the sex of a baby from his or her parents until 30 weeks, noting that the phenomenon of female feticide happens in North America “in numbers large enough to distort the male-to-female ratio in some ethnic groups.” In 2014, a joint statement by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada and the Canadian Association of Radiologists called for an end to performing ultrasounds solely for “entertainment” purposes or to determine the sex of the baby. Nevertheless, despite these calls for reform, the reports are clear that distorted sex ratios are already a fact in some of Canada’s South Asian communities, and are likely to remain so, absent some change in policy.
The issue is a hot potato for Canada’s government, both from a cultural relativism perspective, and because our proudly feminist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that his MPs will always vote in favour of “a woman’s right to choose” in the House of Commons — which could make an awkward debate if his caucus were indeed compelled to support a woman’s right to choose to abort her baby for being a girl. But regardless of whether the government chooses to take this on (I have my money on “no”), this is an issue that the law alone won’t remedy. Indeed, when women’s lives are so undervalued that a family would rather have an abortion than another daughter, the problem is bigger than something that can be fixed by banning ultrasounds before 30 weeks.
Part of the problem is that dogmatic pro-choicers largely refuse to acknowledge that sex-selective abortion exists, much less that it is a problem. But being pro-choice is not — or should not be — absolute. It’s possible to both support a woman’s right to choose and reject the notion that aborting a baby because of its sex is acceptable. It’s not. Perhaps feminists should ask themselves how they reconcile their defence of a woman’s right to choose but not of a girl’s right to live.