Blaming abortion for disappearing girls

NYT's Douthat thinks curtailing women's rights will solve the problem of sex selection. Here's why he's wrong

Topics: Abortion, The New York Times,

Blaming abortion for disappearing girls

In a 1994 article for the journal First Things, Amherst College political scientist Hadley P. Arkes outlined a calculated plan for the antiabortion movement. “We seek simply to preserve the life of the child who survives the abortion,” Arkes wrote. “From that modest beginning, we might go on to restrict abortions after the point of ‘viability,’ or we could ban those abortions ordered up simply because the child happens to be a female.” Such limitations were useful steppingstones toward achieving what Arkes called the “ultimate end”: banning all abortions.

Arkes saw opposing sex-selective abortion as a tactical maneuver, not a remotely feminist act, and 17 years later his strategy has taken hold. Antiabortion legislators are using the prevalence of sex selection in Asia to justify restrictions on abortion in the United States. Bans on sex-selective abortion have passed in four states — Illinois, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Arizona — and been proposed in five others this year — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, New York and New Jersey. These bills are filled with language intended to set a precedent for declaring a fetus equivalent to a life.

Arkes has apparently influenced New York Times columnist Ross Douthat as well. In his Monday column, Mr. Douthat wrote of “Unnatural Selection,” my book on sex selection and its dire effects, that I struggled to “define a victim” for the crime that over 160 million women are missing from Asia’s population. Douthat suggests that victim might be the fetus.

I make very clear in my book that the victim is women — women who in the 1960s and 1970s were used as pawns in a Western drive to reduce birth rates in Asia, women who later aborted female fetuses against the backdrop of patriarchy, and women who, now that they are scarce, find themselves at greater risk of being trafficked, kidnapped, or sold by their parents to men desperate to find wives. (The State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, released last week, lists the dearth of women as a cause of rampant sex trafficking in and around China.)

Sex-selective abortion is wrong because women should account for half of the human population, and in parts of the world they now account for far less. That alone justifies moral outrage.



Antiabortion advocates would have us believe that the practice of sex selection — a fundamentally sexist act — somehow justifies further curtailing women’s rights. They are aided in this hypocritical quest by the comparative silence of American feminists, many of whom are fearful of confronting the complex issues involving abortion. (Feminists in Asia have been tackling sex selection since the 1970s, when fetal sex determination via amniocentesis first hit India.) Reproductive rights in the United States have been positioned around the notion of absolute choice, and facing advances in reproductive technology like early and easy sex determination involves addressing the question of whether there may in fact be some limits to the reach of choice.

But silence on the left is about all the antiabortion camp has going for it.

Mr. Douthat and other pundits have seized on my finding that in developing countries with seriously skewed sex ratios, sex selection tends to take hold first among the educated and upper classes. Increased autonomy does not, sadly, make a woman more likely to have a daughter.

They have also cited my contention that women — and not their husbands — often make the decision to abort a female fetus, as if that somehow justifies outlawing all abortions. Women make the decision to abort because women know best how difficult it is to be female. Further reducing a woman’s rights would only make her more wary of having a daughter.

Abortion is part of the story of how sex selection became rampant in Asia. But this is because abortion was introduced to much of the continent — with a great deal of Western pressure — as a method of population control, not as a woman’s right. Abortion rates soared in countries like Vietnam, South Korea and China as women were forced or strongly encouraged to abort. That dark history of abusing women’s bodies has fed into the prevalence of sex-selective abortions today.

No one combating sex selection in China or India now argues that the appropriate reaction to decades of violating women’s rights is to swing in the other direction and violate them further. Just as a woman should not be forced to abort a wanted pregnancy, she should not be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Activists and government leaders in Asia, in fact, distinguish between the right to terminate a pregnancy and the right to choose the sex of one’s baby. Both China and India have outlawed sex determination, and the use of ultrasound machines is heavily regulated — although these regulations are unfortunately not well enforced.

“You can choose whether to be a parent,” explains Puneet Bedi, a gynecologist in Delhi who performs abortions — and campaigns against the sex-selective sort. “But once you choose to be a parent you cannot choose whether it’s a boy or girl, black or white, tall or short.”

Sex-determination technologies, after all, are hardly the only challenge to the idea of absolute reproductive choice. We can already select against adult-onset diseases like Alzheimer’s, and we may one day be able to choose qualities like eye color or athletic ability in our children. Reproductive rights advocates have begun to scrap unconditional choice in favor of an approach that balances women’s rights with restrictions on parental manipulation. They point out that Roe v. Wade explicitly protects a woman’s right to decide whether to “bear and beget a child,” not to determine that child’s traits.

Antiabortion advocates like Mr. Douthat, in fact, are among the only ones who can’t seem to make the intellectual distinction between choosing to terminate a pregnancy and selecting for sex. They will soon have to catch up.

Sex-selective abortion may eventually become passé, eclipsed by new methods like preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which allows for screening embryos for sex during in vitro fertilization, or sperm sorting, which entails separating X- and Y-carrying sperm prior to insemination. The latter method does not involve destroying a fetus, as it precedes the moment of conception. Clinics offering sex selection via PGD have already been set up in South Korea, Mexico and Egypt.

Yet these alternative methods of sex selection have not incited so much ire among the likes of Mr. Douthat. Perhaps that is because they require a shift of focus away from the fetus and toward women — and confronting the actual fact of our disappearance.

Mara Hvistendahl is a Beijing-based correspondent with Science magazine. She has also contributed to Scientific American, Foreign Policy and Harper's. Her book is "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men." Her website is www.marahvistendahl.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>