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

Published July 1, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

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.

By Mara Hvistendahl

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

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