There was a political uproar in England a few years ago about women seeking abortions on the basis of the gender of the fetus. This is apparently against the law in England. It is also illegal in Australia, but Canada has no prohibition against it. As far as I can determine, it is not illegal in the US, but abortion statistics show no gender preference in this country.
But…a law that limits the reason a woman can have an abortion? How does anyone know what her reasons are? She may have many reasons! And she may choose not to share them with anyone, especially nosy government officials. To put it plainly, trying to limit a woman’s right to an abortion by asking her why she wants it is simply asking her to lie about it if her reason is not one of the “acceptable” reasons.
I don’t see how it would work, anyway. Does government provide a list of “acceptable” reasons? How could anyone compile such a list? There are many reasons why a woman might want to terminate a pregnancy. She may have multiple reasons. Who will parse her list and decide if it constitutes an “acceptable” reason? Will each reason be assigned a “score” and then the total must exceed some minimum value? Is this absurd enough for you? In a further escalation of the idiocy, there is talk in England of making it illegal for a woman to find out the gender of her fetus. What’s next…prohibiting tests to determine Down’s Syndrome or other genetic defects? What if she really wants a blond, blue-eyed kid?
In the end, if abortions are legal, then the reason a woman wants one is, quite clearly, irrelevant…and impossible to determine anyway…until medical science develops a way to do a brain scan. When that happens, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” will have truly arrived.
Laws prohibiting gender-based abortion are largely ignored in Asia, where the practice is common. The US has no law specifically prohibiting abortions based on gender. There have been calls for a law prohibiting it, or restricting women’s access to gender information on their fetus. Besides the obvious chauvinistic and discriminatory aspects, it was claimed that the resulting shortage of females in the population would be harmful and destabilizing to a society.
Any discussion of abortion is charged with emotion and fervent beliefs, both pro and con. In fact, it is impossible to discuss this without considering the larger subject of abortions in general. So, let’s consider a number of typical situations where a woman might consider abortion, including gender selection:
- Jane and Bob have lived together happily for many years. Neither of them want to get married or have children. They have been careful to use contraception, but eventually something goes wrong.
- Mary and Jeff are a young married couple, both professionals, just getting started in their careers. They wish to delay having children for a few years. They use contraception, but she gets pregnant.
- Louise is a single mother with three kids from a previous marriage. The husband left a few years ago and cannot be found, so she is on her own. She is unable to work, and is on welfare. She is on the pill, but her local pharmacist recently refused to dispense her prescription, and she doesn’t have a car, so she was without pills for a few days before she could get to another pharmacy. Through a combination of bad luck, an insistent boyfriend and carelessness, she gets pregnant.
- Mary Lynn is a divorcee with no children. She does not want to remarry. She does not feel that she is emotionally suited to motherhood. She is unable to use the “pill” for medical reasons. She has a boyfriend who uses condoms, but one of them fails.
- Jim and Alice have been a “couple” since they were teenagers. They have postponed marriage until they are out of college, where they are both pursuing professional careers. She is on the pill, but her prescription runs out, and with finals approaching, has no time to get the prescription refilled. Ooops.
- Myrna and LeRoy, a married couple, both have minimal education and work in unskilled, low-paying jobs. They feel they can only afford to have only one child. They both would like to have a boy. When Myrna becomes pregnant, they have a gender test, and discover that the fetus is female.
- Joan and Robert have been married for ten years. They had hoped to have two children, a boy and a girl, but the first two were both girls. Now, Joan is nearing the end of her reproductive period, and the couple desperately wants a boy. When she becomes pregnant, they have a gender test and discover that the fetus is female.
- Treesha is the girlfriend of a gang member. They live in a poor section of a large city. One night when they are walking home from a movie, they are attacked by a number of members of a rival gang. Her boyfriend is beaten, and she is gang-raped…and impregnated.
- Maria and her husband Eric are members of an ethnic group that tends to favor male children. When she realizes she is pregnant, she has a fetal gender test and learns that the fetus is female. When she informs her spouse and family, they urge her to have an abortion.
Rape, incest, coercion, bad luck, carelessness, financial or emotional problems, personal preferences and a desire to “balance” the family are some of the reasons why a woman might seek an abortion. Keep in mind that these are her private reasons. The reasons she gives to her doctor or anyone else might be quite different.
In most of the cases above, the abortion was preventable by the people involved. Careful and consistent use of contraceptives would prevent the vast majority of abortions. In the case of the gender selection abortions, other methods of gender selection are available.
Which of the nine women m the examples above should be allowed to get an abortion, and which should be denied? And who should make the decision? Government? Her doctor? Some other person or group of persons? What criteria should be used to make the decision?
Let me address some of the arguments raised by those who oppose abortion in general, and are trying to use this issue to advance their agenda:
To women seeking an abortion who don’t want to be a parent, they say, “Oh don’t worry, once you have the baby, you’ll find you really enjoy it.” This is the “we know what’s best for you” argument. It is equivalent to advocating the arrest and jailing of vegans, tying them up in their cells and force-feeding them rib-eye steaks, assuring them that they will immediately become enthusiastic carnivores, buy a rifle and go out hunting cows.
To those who say that gender selection abortion will destabilize a society because men will compete, perhaps violently, for the few women, a detailed study of the situation in China suggests that is not the case. In fact, a growing trend is the importation of foreign brides in both China and India.
What about our nation? Would we have massive unrest and violent confrontations between men competing for the chance to marry the scarce females? Believe it or not, I was a young man once, and I don’t remember that I, or any of my companions, were eager to get married and raise a family. Naturally, we all dated and sought sexual experiences, but a permanent monogamous relationship was not even a distant goal. I can’t imagine any of us fighting over a chance to marry a particular girl. There could even be some positive aspects. A society with a shortage of women would probably develop a thriving prostitution business where women could make some real money without any gender discrimination, and single men could fill their refrigerator with beer and leave the toilet seat up without fear of criticism.
Of course, if a society were to stop having any female babies, it would eventually disappear. Simple common sense says that if there are no girl babies, when the women who are currently in their reproductive period “age out” through menopause, there will be NO more babies, period! The Shakers, a religious cult in New England, practiced total abstinence. The result was predictable. Too bad, as they made some wonderful hand-crafted furniture. They apparently had lots of time on their hands and no distractions.
Unlike other animals, humans have sex for pleasure and to show affection. I would wager that at least 99% of the sexual encounters in the world happen without the specific goal of making a baby. Recognizing that lovemaking and baby making are separate and distinct reasons for having sexual relations is the first essential step on the road to sensible family planning and control of the exploding world population. Contraception is the vehicle that takes us down that road. Abortion is the insurance policy that takes care of accidents. If the vehicle is well-designed, readily available and affordable, there will be few accidents due to its failure. But there will always be careless drivers.
Gender selection abortions are a hole in the road that causes a flat tire on that vehicle. To prevent them, some have advocated laws prohibiting a woman from learning the gender of the fetus. Attempts to suppress such knowledge would quickly result in a black market in undercover fetal testing, as it has in Asia. Access to medical knowledge, like the contents of Pandora’s Box, cannot be contained once the box is open. If there is a need, someone will find a way to fill it. Think about the problem of trying to prevent a woman from having a gender test if she is determined to have it. Do you put her under 24-hour surveillance? Such testing will probably become easier and simpler in the future, possibly even self-administered. Trying to prevent it is fantasy.
If you do not oppose abortion in general, only gender selection abortion, then you should find other methods of gender selection such as IVF with Microsort or PGD, Shettles or Ericsson Albumin Methods equally repugnant. If you don’t, you are saying, in effect, that abortion is OK, and gender selection is OK, but abortion to select gender is wrong. Can you spell cognitive dissonance?
Not all actions that we disparage should be illegal. Smoking and alcohol abuse come to mind. But how about drinking or drug use by a pregnant woman? My wife works as a volunteer at a school for homeless and disadvantaged children. She often sees the tragic effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Drug Syndrome. And yet, there is no law preventing a woman from using drugs or alcohol when pregnant. There are only warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers. (There have been some efforts to enact such laws, but they conflict with the Constitution and an individual’s right to privacy.) When women who are alcoholics and drug addicts get pregnant, they should be able to get an abortion, free if necessary, rather than bring a damaged child into the world.
In the final analysis, the purpose of an abortion is to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. What interest does society have in the reason(s) a woman decides to do that? Laws that limit a woman’s right to choice must be carefully weighed to be sure that the cure is not worse than the disease.
Look again at the list of examples above, and ask yourself if any of them should be denied an abortion. If your answer is yes, what criteria did you use to make that decision? And if an abortion were allowed in the cases you wish to prevent, what damage would result?
Let me be clear here: I am not condoning the practice of GSA. I think it is deplorable. Many people think the use of legal drugs like nicotine or alcohol is deplorable. But government actions to discourage use of them is limited to warning signs and labels, and they remain legal as long as their use does not threaten other people.
Let’s examine the charges of chauvinism and discrimination. I have known some real chauvinists in my life. You know, the guys who think women should be pregnant in the summer and barefoot in the winter. Who think women should limit their intellectual activity to meal planning and laundry. Rush Limbaugh, calls women’s rights advocates “feminazis.” That’s chauvinistic…but not illegal.
There are various laws prohibiting discrimination in public venues like the workplace, or businesses open to the public. But an individual is free to discriminate in his private life…in his choice of friends, spouse, and the businesses he patronizes. It is not against the law to be a private bigot. If it were, some sections of the country would have to build a lot more jails.
Most people deplore chauvinists and bigots, but there is no outcry to make such behavior illegal. So why are people outraged at the idea of GSA? Could it be that even pro-choice people feel (perhaps only subconsciously) that the “rights” of the aborted fetus are violated by GSA? Of course, legalized abortion, by definition, denies that the early-term fetus has any human rights. Such thinking is illogical, but emotions sometimes override logic in even the most rational people, especially on the issue of abortion.
Finally, let’s tackle the last point…that gender imbalance in a population is damaging and destabilizing. This view is widely held, although a detailed study of the situation in China suggests that such fears are exaggerated there. Some areas in India and China have the highest gender imbalance ratios on the planet. Gender imbalance is not a new problem in these countries, and the preference for male children is deeply ingrained in the culture of India in particular. Girl babies are considered a financial liability, while boys are considered an asset. Both the Chinese and Indian governments are concerned about the growing imbalance, and are taking actions to discourage GSA, using both laws and positive inducements to promote a more balanced gender ratio at birth. The laws have proved largely ineffective. People have found various ways around them. Even when girls are born, they are often subject to neglect, and even infanticide.
There are some signs of progress. In addition to cash incentives, even more encouraging is the emergence of grassroots organizations in small communities that organize pledges by their members to promote the births of girls, saying that the practice of suppressing female births is shameful and primitive. This seems like the best solution to the problem. The culture that promotes this unsavory practice must be dismantled. Passing the most draconian laws will ultimately be futile if the people refuse to obey them. No government can force such a thing on its citizens. They must be convinced that it is the right thing to do.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.