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Equality Begins in the Womb: How Feminism Has Betrayed Girls

Friday, 28 June 2013  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

How many people noticed that on June 17, ALP and Coalition members joined in the Senate to vote for a motion condemning the practice of “gender biased sex selection in abortion or infanticide whether in Australia or overseas”. The motion was introduced by Victorian DLP Senator John Madigan following a News Limited report in April that Australian doctors were being asked to abort unborn baby girls, simply because the parents wanted a boy. It is unclear how often such requests are made, or how often they may be acceded to, although no doctors would admit to doing so.

It’s easy to condemn the sex-selection abortion overseas , sometimes called 'gendercide', where overwhelmingly, sex-selection abortions are done on females, not males. It is estimated that up to 200 million girls have been aborted world-wide simply for being the ‘wrong’ sex.  In China, where society values sons over daughters, the one-child policy is well known to have led to an increase in sex-selective abortions. But the practice is also increasing in other South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Taiwan. This is despite the fact that in China and India, sex-selection abortion is illegal, and in some places it is even illegal to inform parents of the sex of their unborn child. The law seems to have little deterrent effect. There are situations where having a son rather than a daughter confers an economic advantage. In an agrarian society, sons are valued for their labour. Similarly one can understand a preference for sons when the marriage of a daughter requires the payment of a dowry, or where it is sons who are expected to look after their elderly parents.  However, it seems the major driver of sex-selection abortions is a culture which devalues women.  In such countries the practice has become so widespread as to skew the population balance in those countries, and has been described as “a global war against baby girls’.” In years to come there will be millions of wifeless men. Already there are reports of women from Vietnam, Myanmar, and North Korea systematically trafficked to mainland China and Taiwan and sold into forced marriages.

Christians ought to oppose sex-selection abortion, both on the grounds of respect for human life as made in the image of God, and because male and female are equally made in the image of God and are to be valued equally. Children are a gift from God, not a commodity to be ‘ordered’ with certain desired characteristics.

And on the face of it, the practice is so discriminatory that one might expect universal condemnation. However it is very unlikely that this condemnation will translate into a legal ban in Australia, or even support for a bill introduced by Senator Madigan on March 19 that would ban Medicare rebates for sex-selection abortions. The “Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013″, is not supported by either major party, and has been met by them, according to Senator Madigan, with “stone cold silence” . Some have claimed that the ban is unnecessary because the practice is rare in Australia, but requests may well increase with increasing migration from Asian countries where it is accepted, and as family size continues to shrink and couples want a ‘balanced’ family.

Why the reluctance to ban or even restrict sex-selection abortion in Australia? In 2004, the National Health and Medical Research (NHMRC) essentially outlawed it, stating:

Sex selection is an ethically controversial issue.  The Australian Health Ethics Committee believes that admission to life should not be conditional upon a child being a particular sex.  Therefore, pending further community discussion, sex selection (by whatever means) must not be undertaken except to reduce the risk of transmission of a serious genetic condition.

But these guidelines are not legally binding, as they occur in a section related to artificial reproductive technologies. Such technologies allow Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD): the genetic testing of embryos created in vitro to screen for diseases, and of course the sex may be determined, and then only the embryos which are free of genetic abnormality, of the desired sex, will be implanted. The states of Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia also have specific legislation prohibiting the use of PGD for sex-selection, except to prevent a genetic abnormality or disease (which may be sex-linked).

So if sex-selection is banned pre-implantation in many places in Australia, is universally condemned, why the reluctance to ban or even restrict sex-selection abortion? One might think that feminists in particular would be pushing for a ban.  Some are- hence the slogan “Gender Equality starts here”

Yet other feminist voices have strongly opposed any ban on the practice. They admit that they are deeply conflicted, but for them  rights of (already born) women trump those of unborn girls. In May, 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act which would criminalize aborting a fetus because they are not a preferred gender. One opponent argued that it was "intended to chip away at a women's right to seek safe, legal medical care" and "it tramples the rights of women under the guise of nondiscrimination."

In Canada, pro-abortion lobbyists  argued against a 2012 bill seeking a ban on sex-selection abortion, saying that concerns about the practice  shouldn’t get in the way of the greater need for “absolute” access to abortion. Claiming that pro-life advocates raise the issue because they believe it is the “feminist Achilles heel,” one pro-choice activist said that there was no dilemma, because however much she might dislike the practice,  “Our bottom line has to be to let the woman decide. Always.” She rejected the idea that some reasons for abortion are more valid than others:  “Any woman can choose an abortion for any reason, and she doesn’t have to tell us what it is. It’s none of our business.”

It seems that, in Australia too, restricting abortion in any way at all has become a no go area for politicians. Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said that even to raise the issue “is the latest tactic of those dedicated to restricting women’s right to access full sexual and reproductive health services including abortion”.

Feminism used to be historically, and ought logically to be protective of the powerless. But some sections of feminism appear to have been hijacked by and reduced to “pro-choice”.  Choice trumps everything. The logic of this is that there are no right or wrong choices for a woman in relation to abortion, not even better or worse choices, or better or worse reasons for a choice. To admit that aborting a girl because she is a girl is a poor reason opens the door to questioning other abortion choices, which seems to be taboo. Hence we have the bizarre situation of self-proclaimed feminists  defending the ultimate discrimination against girls. To do otherwise, according to one feminist writer, would be to  “sacrifice [the woman’s] will for ideology.” Instead it seems she and many others are prepared to sacrifice unborn girls on the altar of women’s choice.

Opponents of the U.S. bill for a ban on sex-selection abortion described it as a “War on Women”, but as one supporter argued, "There can be no rights for women if we don't allow them the right to life. ... This is the ultimate war on women. If we don't allow women to be born, we cannot talk about any other rights."

Denise Cooper-Clarke is a medical ethicist and researcher with Ethos.


Rob Sunderland
July 9, 2013, 4:14PM
Hi Denise,
Again you state so clearly the issues in yet another area of ethical decision making.

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