On June 26, the New York Times ran an op-ed from Ross Douthat which highlighted the horror of there being 160 million girls missing in the world today, largely owing to sex-selective abortions. However, rather than indicting this as a horrible outgrowth of deeply entrenched male-supremacy and patriarchy, Douthat places the blame for this on women’s right to abortion and the few hard-won advances that have been made in some spheres for some women. As such, he ends up arguing for the very male supremacy and traditional values that lead to this kind of thing in the first place.
Douthat’s argument rest on three key assertions.
First, Douthat makes the outrageous claim that the widespread practice of sex-selected abortions is not due to patriarchy, but to female “empowerment” and to abortion technology itself. Second, Douthat distorts and discounts the very liberating aims and actual impact of the fight for women’s ability to control their own reproduction due to the fact that there were some very reactionary forces that overlapped at times with some of their program. And, finally, Douthat insists that only the anti-abortion movement can legitimately and fully critique this horror.
On all accounts, as I will show, Douthat is dead wrong.
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Let’s begin with his first major argument.
Douthat disputes the notion that sex-selective abortion is caused by patriarchy and misogyny, because, “Thus far, female empowerment often seems to have led to more sex selection, not less.” He cites Mara Hvistendahl’s new book, “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” to argue, “In many communities... ‘women use their increased autonomy to select for sons,’ because male offspring bring higher social status.”
Excuse me? There is a huge difference between “women’s empowerment” and increased “autonomy” within a world of patriarchy and male-supremacy and the full liberation and equal participation of women together with men in every sphere through the achievement of a world without patriarchy and male supremacy! And lest anyone be confused: a world where “male offspring bring higher social status” is a world in which women are still, a) valued not as full human beings but as the breeders of children, and b) boys are valued more than girls. That is a world of patriarchy.
Further, it is extremely widespread for women in the countries where the practice of sex-selected abortions is most widespread to be severely beaten, set on fire, or burned with acid if they fail to produce a male child. In this context, the fact that some of these women themselves “choose” to selectively abort female fetuses – and even the fact that often this brutality is carried out with the participation of women (most often the mother-in-law) – does not change the fact that this violence, the valuing of women only in terms of the offspring they produce, and the subsequent selection for male fetuses are ALL the result of deeply entrenched male supremacy and patriarchy.
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Next, let’s take apart Douthat’s attempts to obscure and bury any discussion of the real interest of women beneath a game of guilt by association.
Douthat cites Hvistendahl in identifying “an unlikely alliance between Republican cold warriors worried that population growth would fuel the spread of Communism and left-wing scientists and activists who believed that abortion was necessary for both ‘the needs of women’ and ‘the future prosperity – or many survival – of mankind.’” He continues, “For many of these antipopulation campaigners, sex selection was a feature rather than a bug, since a society with fewer girls was guaranteed to reproduce itself at lower rates.”
Notice first that there is zero discussion from Douthat as to whether or not “abortion [is] necessary for the ‘needs of women.’” In fact, it is. A world without abortion is a world in which women are forced to bear children against their will. It is a world that enslaves women to their biology. It is a world in which women have little more freedom than slaves.
But, Douthat side-steps this basic and fundamental truth by instead “revealing” that there were some reactionary forces whose agendas overlapped in some ways with those fighting for women’s reproductive freedom. Big fucking deal! I spoke to a fanatical End Times fundamentalist not long ago who was eager to seize on recent scientific findings pointing to the tremendous extremes of recent weather patterns, but that doesn’t mean he had anything in common with those fighting to recognize – and put an end to – the manmade causes of climate change!
But to go even further, the fact that some in the movement for women’s reproductive rights have at times been influenced by racism and chauvinism that is so common in an imperialist country like the U.S., does not negate the fact that the right to decide for herself when and whether to have a child is necessary for women to be free.
Finally, Douthat implies that Hvistendahl and others who uphold women’s right to abortion don’t really have firm ground to stand on in condemning the situation that has led to – or the harm caused by – the 160 million missing girls. Instead, Douthat offers the simplistic and wrong-headed claim that “the anti-abortion side has it easier” because it can say outright that, “The tragedy of the world’s 160 million missing girls isn’t that they’re ‘missing.’ The tragedy is that they’re dead.”
Only they aren’t dead, they really are missing. While a fetus has the potential to become a human being, it is not a human being until it is born. Ever notice how we count how long we’ve been alive since the date of our births? Until then – no matter how much the anti-abortion movement romanticizes it and no matter how many “pro-choice” people capitulate to their bullshit – a fetus is a subordinate part of a woman’s body. As such, those girls really are missing because they never came into being as independent biological or social beings.
On the other hand, the women in whose body fetuses grow are fully formed human beings. And each year, 70,000 of those fully formed human beings die due to lack of access to reproductive health and safe abortions. They are not “missing” -- those women are dead! And the lives of the millions upon millions of women worldwide who are forced to have children they do not want, their lives are significantly disfigured. And the lives of all women who live in a world that fails to recognize the full humanity and equality of women in every sphere – and instead reduces them to either breeders or sex objects, and quite often both – is horribly diminished.
We do not need the horrors that Douthat is peddling – even greater burden on that half of humanity that has the misfortune in this world of male-supremacy of being born female, the retrenching the very patriarchy that leads to female children being valued less than males, and the further restriction of women’s ability to control their own bodies and their own destinies. We need the kind of thorough-going, world-wide revolution that can, once and for all lift these burdens off of women as a core and driving force in the emancipation of all of humanity – from the lack of access to birth control and abortion to the life-time of restrictions, insults, violence and degradation that comes from being born female.
To find out more about that revolution, here is a good place to start.