Sex-selection abortion has long been a preoccupation of opponents of reproductive choice and a conundrum for many feminists who favor abortion rights but fear a culturally-driven reduction in the numbers of female offspring. The debate has grown increasingly sharp in recent days as fertility clinics in the United States have begun to offer pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD) that enables women to choose the gender of their children, and a conservative Congressman from Arizona, Trent Franks, has proposed legislation—likely unconstitutional—to ban abortions motivated by either gender or race.
As a strong supporter of both reproductive freedom and women’s equality, I am far less troubled by sex-selection through PGD or abortion than I am by the reluctance of those who otherwise support these goals to defend such practices. Both reproductive liberty and gender equality are among the essential elements of a free, enlightened civilization—and a society compromises either at its peril. Moreover, sex-selection through abortion or PGD need not inevitably subvert the welfare of women and girls. If policy makers think creatively, such technologies might actually work as a source of empowerment for women across the globe.
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The right to do as one wishes with one’s own body, while not absolute, is one that should be restricted only in extreme and compelling circumstances. Some opponents of reproductive choice view fetuses as having achieved personhood and therefore believe that all abortions should be criminalized.
Other believe that although fetus do not have the same value as living human beings, they none-the-less have intrinsic moral worth—and so pregnancies should be terminated only under compelling circumstances, such as in cases of rape, incest and birth defects. I do not agree with either of these positions, but
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I do recognize their internal logic. However, once one crosses the threshold of believing that abortions should be available on demand, because women ought to control their own bodies and all pregnancies should be wanted, then investigating the motivations of individuals seeking abortions makes little sense. What rational or ethical difference is there between ending a pregnancy because one is not ready to be a parent and ending a pregnancy because one wishes to have a girl?
If abortion is not a moral wrong, and I am among those who believe that it is not, then aborting an unwanted child for any reason—even to produce an infant of the opposite gender—is desirable.
Mothers who want boys should have boys and mothers who want girls should have girls. Pre-implanting diagnosis offers the promising of increasing the number of children who are loved and wanted. I look forward to the day when every son knows that his parents wanted a son and every daughter knows that her parents wanted a daughter.
The problem with gender selection, of course, is that in many cultures and nations the process still favors males. Sex selection—made possible through ultrasound, and more recently by maternal blood tests—has led to skewed gender imbalances in China, India and much of Southeast Asia. Inevitably, tens of millions of bachelors, unable to find suitable mates and raise families, suffer from this lack of companionship. A generation of unwed males has meant increased social unrest, more violent crime, and arguably less social mobility. Demographic analysis has also revealed that some Asian communities in the United States are also choosing to have boys at the expense of girls, skewing gender balances in this country.
A far too simplistic approach to this problem is simply to prohibit gender-based reproductive choices. Yet India’s experiment with a ban on gender-based abortions has proven utterly ineffectual. Similarly, Great Britain’s prohibition on gender-based PGD has simply shifted the baby market to North America. While at the present time most clinics in the United States only permit sex-selection to balance out families, this rule will also inevitably crumble under the weight of consumer demand and economic pressure. The reality is that as long as couples want boys, they will find a way to have them. Some will produce unwanted girls along the way as did Henry VIII. Others will rely upon ingenuity and determination to harness the promise of modern technologies, whether or not they are legal.
Fortunately, the autonomy of individual women and the societal need for population-based gender equilibrium need not conflict. If we are serious about furthering both reproductive choice and gender equality, the most ethical solution might be to start paying for girls. As “elterngeld” payments to new parents have demonstrated in France, Germany and Scandinavia, the best way to control human reproduction is not through criminal law but through economic subsidization. One of the reasons many couples prefer males is that males offer the promise of labor, while females are likely to demand dowries and drain resources.
By distributing cash to those couples who have girls—possibly in annual increments, to ensure that girls are not simply born and abandoned—nations can counterbalance the financial impetus that drives a preference for boys. As a result, some women may turn away from aborting girls. At the same time, other women who might have had no initial preference between genders will choose to have girls in the hope of reaping the pecuniary advantages. In the end, a perfect balance can be achieved—with the cash incentive set at precisely the correct rate to ensure global gender parity. Needless to say, if female babies are worth their weight in rupees and yuan, economic and educational opportunities may soon follow. Since such funds will inevitably arise from public revenues, one might also view such “girl-subsidies” as taxes on boys, equally true but far less marketable.
Gender selection, if used wisely, offers yet another opportunity to increase individual autonomy and familial happiness. Some couples will likely prefer to let fate determine the sex of their offspring and this is certainly their prerogative. But a respect for human liberty means allowing those couples whose cultural values or personal tastes favor babies of a certain gender to have the children they desire too. If imbalances arise, society ought to correct these asymmetries with positive incentives, not restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
Needless to say, those who fear that sex-selection threatens women also have the very same technologies at their disposal as those who choose to have boys—and they should certainly consider using them. What better way is there to empower women than to make the affirmative choice to give birth to a girl? If the many women who believe in both reproductive choice and gender equality utilized all available technologies to have girls, and only girls, they would likely provide a robust counterbalance to those couples who prefer boys.
Far from a challenge to the welfare of women, as opponents claim, sex-selection—if used effectively—might be the most powerful tool for achieving gender equality since Lysistrata convinced the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands in order to end the Pelopponesian War.