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.