Sex-selective abortion and playing into anti-choice hands

Friday, 23 September 2011

How can we encourage effective, productive debate on sex-selective abortion?

Most of us are aware of how this practice is contributing to declining ratios of girls to boys. We hear the most about the problems it's causing in India and China, but recently have learnt more about the fact the "trend" is now affecting countries such as "Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, the Balkans and Albania, where the sex ratio is 115/100".

Clearly, the issue of societies that value boy children over girl children (and the associated issues this ends up contributing to, such as sex trafficking and prostitution) to this extent should be a major area of concern for gender equality activists, but what poses a problem here is the extent to which any discussion is obviously going to provide fuel for anti-choice fires.

I haven't read Mara Hvistendahl's book Unnatural Selection, but her analysis of the situation got plenty of attention this summer.

"Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live. Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent," she says.

But instead of purely focusing on the cultural aspects of what makes sex-selective abortion acceptable, she makes a case for the West playing a major part - exporting as it has modern technology, safer abortions and ultrasound scans. What's clear is that there is a lot to be considered.

The way in which discussion on all of this is likely to become unproductive was demonstrated perfectly by Laurie Penny's column in the New Statesman yesterday. Laurie was characteristically emotive, writing of "missing girls" and the "howls" of the "ghosts of girl children", while giving ideas as to how the "trend" can be reversed, citing South Korea as an example.

"Better education of girls, equal rights legislation and more participation by women in public life made prejudice against female children seem outdated, according to a recent report by the Economist," she wrote.

Below the line, several people commenting chose to attack Laurie for what they saw as her "hypocrisy", writing that she "can't have it both ways" and insinuating that her belief that abortion should be safe and legal is an enormous contradiction of her stance on sex-selective terminations. Obviously this is untrue, but I know it made a lot of people wonder how, as feminists, we can move forward in discussing the issue without falling into the trap of using phrases that wouldn't be out of place in anti-choice literature and playing into the hands of those who are quick to call "hypocrisy!".

I think what this demonstrates is the need to be careful with our choice of words, not relying on imagery - such as "ghosts" and "howls" that can easily be turned into an attack from the "other side" and look pretty suspect when we know that we would be quick to criticise the same language if it came from elsewhere. Said @sofiebuckland on Twitter yesterday:

"The last thing we want to do is hand tools to the rightwing or anti-choice to beat us with our own perceived hypocrisies. Which this does."

So where do we go from here? After talking about this on Twitter yesterday, some of us felt that an open discussing stemming from a post outlining the problem might be a good idea because several people had a lot to say. So: feel free to discuss and make suggestions!

Interesting link via Education for Choice on US implementation of anti-sex-selection policies with an anti-choice undertone for those who are interested - Arizona's faulty logic on sex-selective abortion.

Photo via achiemcphee's Flickr.


Jennie said...

Until we cure the extreme sexism in these societies, this is always going to happen. Mothers are terrified they will have girls who will have to suffer the same fates they have as much as fathers not wanting girls for sexist reasons.

Eve Maria said...

this is a interesting thing to think about, and really good points you make. Jennie definitely makes good points too. I think probably my argument against sex-selective abortion would be to use facts as much as possible. To try and get stats of violence, sexism and gender discrimination in communities where there are predominantly males.

Anonymous said...

After I wrote about this for Cif earlier this year, I became quite convinced that focusing on abortion is the worst way to deal with this. Abortion should always be available - safely, legally - where it is required. Restricting it might reduce abortions, but does seem to lead to a corollary increase in mortality among girls (and women seeking unsafe treatment), while doing nothing to solve the cultural biases that make girls undesirable. It shouldn't be an argument about whether sex-selective abortion is OK, but a battle against the valuing of children primarily on the basis of their gender in any circumstance.

Hannah Mudge said...

Jennie, Sarah - i totally agree. I think the focus needs to be on the value of girls and how this can be tackled. Otherwise, it is all too easy for it to become a pro- vs anti-choice slanging match that achieves nothing. The same could actually be said of discussion surrounding many different gender issues to be honest! It's frustrating and achieves nothing. As you say, Sarah, the only thing restricting abortion does is cause more deaths related to complications from unsafe abortion while solving no cultural issues.


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