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

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



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>