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I was reading about this issue on BBC news today (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-23968107). It is an old issue but it’s something that is still argued about. Gender selective abortions are generally illegal, even in countries where abortion is legal and unrestricted up to a certain time. There is, however, still a problem, especially among certain cultures of people wanting gender selective abortions; specifically, it is a salient problem in cultures in which it is common to want to abort a fetus if it is going to be a girl. This has led to some doctors in the UK refusing to tell parents-to-be of Chinese and Indian descent the sex of their child (something that is another issue in itself).

The point is that we are not supposed to abort a fetus based on its gender. Seems fair, it’s an extreme form of sexism and we are trying to remove all the “isms” from society. But why is aborting a fetus based on sex any more wrong than aborting a fetus at all? Side note: I am pro-choice, so this argument is not going to turn into an anti-abortion rant; however, I’m not certain how I feel about gender-selective abortions.

A woman has an abortion because she got pregnant through consensual sex and doesn’t want children. This is fine. No reason for this poor woman to be an incubator for 9 months if she doesn’t have to be. A woman is carrying a fetus with a “serious” abnormality and doesn’t want to keep it, that is often grounds for a late term abortion. A woman who knows that a daughter is not what she wants and she would rather have no child than a daughter: not allowed an abortion.

There are a number of issues at stake as to why this shouldn’t be allowed, some of which I fully understand.

1. Sexism: obviously, I don’t need to explain this one. Although shouldn’t we trying changing mindsets as opposed to/as well as forbidding this?

2. Population: it makes sense. We don’t want nations of almost all men, it would make procreating a lot more difficult.

3. Nothing preventing the child living a good life: this one is arguable. If the child is unwanted, and of the apparent “inferior” gender then they might not exactly be treated well. This also leads me onto my main point:

There is nothing preventing the child from living a good life. Isn’t that the case for almost all abortions? The child could be given up for adoption, the parents could love it, it could grow up to cure cancer, numerous positive options. If this is the argument then it feels like we turn to argue against abortions in general.

So let’s take a step back. Abortion is okay in general, it’s selective abortion that is bad because it is discriminatory, etc. But selective abortion is fully permissible, in fact, it’s one of the few cases that late abortions are allowed. It is selective based on disability. How is disability defined you might ask? Obviously, it’s hard to argue that a child with Tay-Sachs is not disabled and can live a fulfilling life. But disability can be mental or physical, and from what I can find (the information for this was a lot easier to find for the UK than the US) what “severe” means is up to the doctor and patient’s discretion. For example, a cleft lip and palate can be counted as a severe physical disability. This would be a fetus that could otherwise grow up to be a fully functional adult. There is surgery for cleft lip and palate and many people recover from the surgery with nothing to show for it but a small scar. There are so many relatively minor disabilities that still allow for a fulfilling, happy life. One interesting example is dwarfism, a disorder that can be characterized as severe. There are over 200 versions of it that range in severity; most include chronic health problems and shortened life span. Many doctors and parents would class that as severe disability, but there are now groups (http://www.lpaonline.org/about-lpa) that support people with the disorder and advocate against aborting a fetus because it has a form of dwarfism.

In fact, you will find that many of the groups set up by and for those with certain disabilities are vehemently opposed to aborting a fetus because of that disability. To these people the idea of aborting because of the disability is just as offensive as it is to a woman that a fetus is aborted because it was female.

Once again we seem to find ourselves in the throes of hypocrisy. Us “normals” think it’s fine to abort “abnormals” but find it abhorrent to abort a fetus based on sex. In a lot of ways there is no difference.

So, what are the solutions?

1. Ban selective abortions of any kind? I don’t think that works.

2. Legalize all selective abortions? Maybe. I mean, all abortions are selective in a way aren’t they? Often because the woman feels unable to have/support/raise the child.

3. Be more selective about abortions based on disabilities? But what if a woman feels unable to support a child with dwarfism or even cleft lip and palette? “Unable to support” is tenable?. Why then, is a woman who feels unable to have/support/raise a child of a specific gender not allowed an abortion?

Is there a better and more consistent way to answer this question?




DISCLAIMER: I am not saying we should allow people to abort based on the sex of the fetus (although I’m not saying we shouldn’t either). I just feel like the illegality of that is not in line with the rest of the general rules surrounding abortions.

UPDATE: I found this article, which is a little old, but explains the US position on sex-based abortion, and explores whether you can be pro-choice and anti sex-selection in a little more detail:  http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/05/31/sex_selection_abortion_and_the_pro_choice_movement_why_liberals_shouldn_t_gulp.html