Just Asking

Our distress around sex-selection abortion indicates that the slogans don’t capture all that we think or feel on this public policy issue. That realization leads to some difficult questions.


The week before last, a CBC producer, reporter and stealth technical crew broke a story about private ultrasound clinics advising clients of the gender of their unborn babies before the 20th week of pregnancy, which is the de facto cut-off date for Canadian abortions.

Private ultrasound clinics are a function mostly of big-city markets: Vancouver and Toronto, primarily. It’s not likely an accident that those two big cities are also centres of immigration. As the reporter said on our radio station’s morning show, “some other cultures” value boys more highly than girls. Ya think?

Sex-selection abortion is one of those recurring news stories. It never gets enough traction to cause Something to be Done — it being unclear, perhaps, What Could Be Done — but it never quite goes away either.

The tone of these news stories is earnest — to paraphrase Southpark’s Mr. Mackey, Sex-selection abortion is Bad, m’kay? Not illegal, you understand, there being no Canadian law on abortion, but Bad. Commentators contrast the private clinics with hospital-based ultrasound clinics, which do not divulge gender information before 20 weeks, precisely to eliminate the possibility of contributing to sex-selection abortion.

If these reports of hospital practice are accurate, then even though we have abortion on demand in Canada, we also have impediments to sex-selection abortion.

That means, I guess, that it’s OK to abort because you don’t want a handicapped baby. Or a baby by this man. Or a baby right now. Or any baby at all.

But it’s not OK to abort just because you don’t want a girl.

I’m not sure I understand the objection.  Why would abortion be perfectly OK when you don’t know the baby’s gender, yet suddenly queasy-making when you do? Let’s go through the options.

If an abortion is merely a woman exercising her right to control her own body, then why should it matter if the bits of tissue expelled from that body would have developed into a girl, rather than a boy?

If it’s OK to abort a fetus with chromosomal damage — judged to be less than fully human, perhaps? — then why isn’t it OK to abort girls if you think that they are less than fully human? Or less than boys, at any rate.

If it’s OK to abort a healthy or unhealthy fetus for convenience, then why isn’t it OK to include having a girl as one of the inconveniences to be avoided by whatever means?

It’s not logical, but we seem to be repelled by sex-selection abortion. Else, how do we explain that reported hospital policy and the reporters’ earnest tone? What’s going on here?

A woman has the right to choose: this is, in effect, Canada’s official position, since it is what our lack of a law enables. With this position, abortion has been not just decriminalized but also ‘amoralized’: rendered devoid of moral content. As the Canadians for Choice website says of the choice a pregnant woman must make between abortion, giving a baby up for adoption, and parenting: There is no wrong decision and it is important to remember the right decision is the one that feels right to you.

By that argument, there is no case to be made against sex-selection abortion. If it feels right to the woman making the choice, then it is right. Case closed.

Sometimes a slogan morphs into something with the status of a received wisdom.  A woman has the right to choose. But this received wisdom can’t account for our distress when women do choose, but for reasons we find abhorrent. Houston, we have a problem. Two problems, actually.

One is purely practical. If we go back to screening abortions based on the woman’s reason for having one, where will it end? Who will decide what reasons are OK this year, and how will the screeners know that women are not lying?

The other problem is, you should excuse the pun, more conceptual. We can try to hold onto both ends of this twisting snake: Abortion for convenience is good, but sex-selection abortion is bad. Or we can let go altogether, and see what happens. Maybe our intuition about sex-selection abortion is trying to tell us something.

After all, if it isn’t OK to abort because you know the gender of the baby, why is it OK to abort when you don’t know?

I’m just asking.

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10 Responses to Just Asking

  1. Mary Gibson says:

    I decided some years ago that I needed to get off the fence on this issue, so I did. But I also empathize deeply with Andy Rooney when he said “I’m pro-life, but I like the pro-choice people better than I like the pro-life people.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – Hah! Yes, I get that. Of course, your assessment (& Andy’s, & mine) might be different if more people said what they believed.

  2. Jim taylor says:

    Damn! You’re making me think again! I’m so much more comfortable when I think I know what I think.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Sorry about that… but I know that club – the “I thought I knew what I thought” club. They meet Thursdays, right? The part about this ‘debate’ that distresses me the most is that we pretty much can’t debate it in a respectful way.

  3. Morris B says:

    I think that you may have missed one key aspect of the sex-selection abortion issue. That is, if the reporting is to be believed, and I have no reason to suspect otherwise. Many women who are making this selection are not doing so of their free will but are being coerced. So just like women have been forced into birthing unwanted children, by the anti-abortion faction, their husbands, their priests and the courts, women are being forced to discover the gender of their fetus and are “coerced” into having abortions of unwanted girls by their husbands and families. Failing to do so brings all sorts of grief upon the woman and the unwanted child.
    This is a truly nasty side to this issue that once again takes away the woman’s right to choose.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Morris – You make a good point. Other news reports have talked about the pressure on women in some cultures to produce a boy, and it’s entirely possible that if girls are being selectively aborted, it’s not (or not always) the woman’s ‘free choice’ in any reasonable sense.

      • I agree with Morris. I once had discussion with my family doctor about abortion and she said that in her experience abortion itself is one of the greatest abuses of women. Because of lack of support for having children as a natural part of living, sex as a commodity and women continuing to be objectified, abortion is the remedy. I think it is somehow seen as a method for stopping the abuse. It is never a good solution, however. How can it be when it kills a human being and so frequently continues to cause pain to the women for years after? I think it needs to be legal, not because it is right but only to stop further wrongs – back-street abortions for example or, as the example my doctor gave, further damage to yet another child by her abusive husband. Stopping abortion as sex selection attempts to draw the line somewhere and stop the abuse that abortion is for both the women and the child. Until we get to the place where we can fully embrace human beings of both genders and of every capacity we will continue to use short-term, supposedly convenient methods to save ourselves from the discomforts of our choices and selfishness. I feel so often that the debate itself becomes abusive and hurtful on both sides and, as was said earlier, it’s hard to like either argument or side. Thanks Isabel for your insight. You make a very good case. It made me think again about a difficult issue.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Esther – This is one of the hardest discussions to have, perhaps illustrating that old saying: It’s easy to *be* right, somewhat harder to *do* right. I think it’s pretty clear that even if you hate abortion, it isn’t as simple as outlawing it. It will go underground if it has to. I’d sure like for all women to have safe access to safe contraception (both medically and in terms of their relationships), and for society to honour women who choose to carry unwanted babies to term and give them up for adoption. But I don’t get to determine all that – all I can do is try to be clear in my own mind, and act accordingly.

  4. mere says:

    Abortion has always been a symptom of larger societal problems and that is why legislation has never worked at curtailing it. The larger problem in this case is obviously the nasty truth that some cultures still value boys much much, much more than girls. So I agree with the OP in that we can’t legislate sex-selection abortions, but should work tirelessly to overcome this horrible stigma.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mere – I think abortion brings several values into direct conflict, and we lack a rigorous way for working through that conflict, both individually and as a society. Maybe we just have to ‘suck it up’ – recognize and accept that there is no perfect answer/resolution, and get on with the hard work of making abortion unnecessary in as many cases as possible.

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