Feminism, sex-selective abortion, and the false charge of hypocrisy

This post was written by Reuben on February 26, 2012
Posted Under: Uncategorized

So the Telegraph has “uncovered” the fact that some doctors are offering abortions without asking very many questions. Well golly, who’dda thunk it?!

It hardly needs to be said that the Paper’s “expose” is more an exercise in advocacy than it is genuine investigative journalism. For decades it has been widely understood that British women have a de facto right to an abortion. The 1967 law obviously stops short of a full on right to choose. Yet the bar is deliberately set low. Women do not have to show that the face significant or substantial mental or physical harm. They must only demonstrate that the risks of mental harm associated with a continuation of the pregnancy exceed the risks associated with its termination – not all that that different the “more harm than good” test for anyone NHS operation. Meanwhile, in practice, one rarely if ever encounters a woman who is compelled to follow through with her pregnancy, because her reasons for termination were not good. Abortion today, is extremely common.

One thing that the right in particular have been cooing about, is the Telegraph’s discovery of doctors who appeared willing to offer “sex-selective” abortions, to women who wanted a son but who carried a prospective daughter. For some this reveals the hypocrisy of the feminists. “The irony of it”, opined the Telegraph’s Critina Odone, “is that feminists have always preached that abortion was something we women should fight for as our right; here it is being used to stamp out our sex”.

The idea that sex-selective abortion ought to represent some kind of grave moral dilemna for feminists is, to put it politely, misplaced. To be a feminist is to fight for the rights of women - real living women. It is not the role of feminists to defend a bundle of cells which might potentially turn into a female. For the same reason, the rather coercive manner in which males get laid throughout much of the animal kingdom is not an issue around which feminists tend to campaign. Feminism, I repeat, is about liberating women within the context of human society. Not a general commitment to all things female, or potentially female.

We may, rightly, dislike the cultural and social circumstances, that give rise to a preference for male heirs. Indeed we may dislike the reasoning that leads to “sex-selective” abortions. Yet if a woman chooses to have a termination – in oher words, to have something done to her own body – it is not  the prerogative of society to decide whether or not she has a good enough reason for doing it. Sovereignty over one’s own body includes the right to make decisions with which other’s may be uncomfortable.

All of this reminds of a conservation I had a few years back with an evangelical Christian, who worked as one of Andrew Lansle’s political staff. At the time there was a campaign to reduce the legal limits within which feotuses could be aborted to 18 weeks. I told her that I didn’t understand why people like her, who believed that life started at conception, saw any moral value in reducing the term limit. Her answer was fairly forthright: the issue of terms limits, she said, was simply a mechanism by which the whole question of abortion could be put up for discussion. I suspect that something similar is happening here. People who have long had a problem with abortion – buoyed by the apparent sympathy of the health secretary –  are doing their best to exploit ambiguities in the 1967 settlement, and the long accepted disparities between the legal theory and the social and  medical practice. The issue may indeed come to something of a head within this parliament. As such it is more important than ever to push for Britain to join many other developed Liberal democracies in granting women a proper and unqualified right to choose.

One in three women, remember, have an abortion at some point in their lives. Combine that with the number of people whose sister, mother or aughter has opted, at some point, for a termination, and we are probably talking about a majority of the country. Under such circumstances, those of us who support the full sovereignty of women over their own bodies need not be defensive nor moderate in addressing the the issues that the pro-life right have forced onto the agenda. If the telegraph and co. want a fight over the right to choose, they can bring it on.

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To contact Reuben email reuben@thethirdestate.net


Reader Comments


“it is not the prerogative of society to decide whether or not she has a good enough reason for doing it.”
Do you really believe that? Remember, there is a difference between opposing sex-selection because it is killing a woman, and opposing it because it oppresses women.
Society’s deciding which reasons count as legitimate ones for abortion – especially abortion paid for by the government, and hence for the common good rather than just the individuals immediately involved – is a key safeguard against eugenics in the worst case and creating a culture of discrimination in the more likely case.
Once we start to consider, each in turn, the different grounds for motivation a woman might have, the quote above becomes untenable. Disability? Fine, since it is not a real disabled person – but it does imply that disabled people are not worth the effort of caring for them, or that a life with disabilities is less worth living. Black people? Fine, since it is not a real black person being aborted.
If we do not legislate against oppressive motivations then, insofar as the law is a tutor (and it clearly is), we are saying those motivations are alright. We are saying that it is fine to not want someone to come into existence because they will be a woman, or have the wrong skin colour, or the wrong physical capabilities.
The argument that unjust discrimination is not the primary motivation here, but just one among others, is not relevant. We are talking about cases where sex-selection is the primary, if not only, reason given.
The argument that unjust discrimination is not the primary motivation, but rather “my husband will leave me if I have another daughter”, and therefore that sex-selection can be allowed, is inadequate and misguided as regards changing the law. It is similar in structure (but not degree, or circumstance, because no-one is getting killed) to claiming that we should legalise honour-killings because the primary motivation is not sexism, but “my family will be dishonoured”. Changing the law to allow sex-selection would be changing the law *in favour of* sexism. Apply the primary motivation argument to racial motivations again and see if you do not think it should be legislated against. What ‘real motivation’, for procuring an abortion just because the child would be born black, would you want to give approval to by legalising it?
“it is not the prerogative of society to decide whether or not she has a good enough reason for doing it.”
The idea that all our actions are social actions cuts in multiple directions, particularly where public services are concerned. (This is pertinent as chromosomally selected AID has been legal privately for a long time, as I understand it). Without expanding this comment any further, I can imagine there are a whole range of basically private actions (particularly those involving spending one’s income) where we do believe that society has the prerogative to judge and legislate on people’s motivations.

Written By Hugh on February 26th, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

I agree with Hugh!

You’re dismissing the very important socio-cultural background to the decision of having a sex-selective abortion, ie, the woman is most probably being pressured to have it! That’s not a woman using her right to choose how her body is used – that’s her reacting to unjust threats and discrimination (perhaps throughout her life).

By saying that one’s objection to the reasons that have caused her to be in this position is not important, I think you are completely missing the point.

Written By Chloe on February 26th, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

Very interesting. However it does start us down the slippery slope of ‘designer’ babies? *Excuse the pun. Maybe also this is reflective of the general problems that lead a woman to still think that giving birth to a male is the better option? Which may simply be resolved by education in some sectors of the community. And also by the fact that in China and India it is already illegal and that will probably filter through. It is also not an improbability that many women may be selectively choosing to give birth to a female child. . . Also it is very difficult to determine the sex until 18 – 22 week which means a very late term abortion and therefore a more risky, intrusive and potentially emotional procedure. I find myself agreeing that it would be regrettable to go down the route of making sex selective abortion illegal, yet I am personally very concerned about the implications for disabled foetuses. For example, when I was born my parents were informed that I would have a limited quality of life. Which turned out to be bollocks. However as far as I’m aware abortion on the basis of special needs or other sensory limitations are not at epidemic levels. Presumably it would also be very difficult to police? Either informing parents of the gender would be forbidden,as I believe is the case in China, or the termination deadline would have to be lowered to a point before the gender could be determined?

Written By Amy on February 26th, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

Hugh and Chloe put it very well, think you’re way off on this one. Too much of the debate focuses on the rights of women and the rights of foetuses to the exclusion of considering the rights of society at large not to tolerate stupid, archaic and discriminatory practices. Individual rights are only part of the story – particularly if the taxpayer’s paying.

Written By majeed on February 27th, 2012 @ 7:31 am

Thanks so much too all of you. Very interesting points raised here.

Thinking mainly about what Chloe said, but also, Hugh, the big issue here is that people, at the very least, women are making “choices” under circumstances which are a) unjust b) not of their choosing. Yet saying that covers a potentially very broad range of scenarios, all of which have different implications for the legitimacy of state coercion (the mere presence of unjust circumstances *by necessity8 negate the value of giving people liberty in dealing with said circumstances). So, let’s get a bit specific about the possible relationships betweens the conditions and the choice.

Let’s say, for the purposes of argument, than some women are being physically threatened into having abortions, and furthermore, the very fact that women have the option of a sex-selective abortion encourages their families to make threats. Under such circumstances, a ban on sex-selective abortions would be justified for the same reason that some countries ban ransom payments for kidnappings. The very fact that the woman has the option to abort makes the oppressive circumstances more potent, since people can threaten her into termination.

Now for scenario 2. Due to unjust social, cultural and familial circumstances, a woman realises that she will be heavily disadvantaged, materially or otherwise by giving birth to a girl. To quote Hugh, her husband may leave her. The impact on the woman of giving birth to a girl will be the same regardless of whether the law had offered her the option to abort.

My big pre-occupation here is that no woman should be compelled to martyr herself. She is not in a position to unilaterally shift her wider circumstances – in other words she cannot, by herself, get rid of all the disadvantages that go with giving birth to a girl. So, given what prevails, she makes a self-interested (but nonetheless deeply unsatisfactory) decision to abort the girl. Insofar as she is not harming others, it is up to her to traverse what she cannot control. As the person who has to live with consequences of deciding either may, the decision should be left to her. In the same way, I don;t believe in a society based upon wage labour, but I don’t abstain from work (and before some intemperate (and to pre-empt the standard online argument I realise that work is not the same as an abortion.

The third scenario is that the woman has internalised the discriminatory values, and wants to abort the feotus because it will come out as a girl. When it comes to things we do to our own body, that we want to do to our own body, it is really not the states role to intervene because it thinks we are wrong. Maybe it is, under particularly drastic circumstances, like if I believed that the spirit of confucious had commanded me to cut off my own arm. But for a procedure as common as termination, it should be up to the woman concerned.

So the point is that simply saying “there are pressure and circumstances involved” does not make the question of whether the state should ban sex-selective abortions an open and shut case. The precise relationship between the conditions and the decision matter.

Written By Reuben on February 27th, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

Reuben, I take your point BUT … as Amy very rightly pointed out, the point at which you can tell what sex the baby actually is, is pretty late on in the pregnancy. A quick google search says between the 18th and 22nd weeks is the time for determining the sex (and I’d just like to point out that it’s not a sure thing – it’s a pretty smudgy picture on a screen, and the foetus won’t even necessarily be in the right position to clearly identify the sex). The upper limit for abortions is 24 weeks. The number of abortions carried out at this time (in the UK) is tiny – it’s usually agreed to because there’s some serious abnormality which will endanger the woman’s life or that of the foetus’s.

Terminating a foetus that’s edging towards viability (though granted, it would be extremely lucky to survive if born at 24 weeks) is not a “common” procedure, as you claim. The mother would likely be “showing” at this point, and may well have strong emotions about her pregnancy (she’ll have undergone the sometimes very difficult first trimester for it, too). Unless the people in question are getting earlier CVS tests done (which aren’t the best because they’re potentially harmful), they are going to be terminating a pretty well-developed foetus, rather than a small ball of cells as with early terminations. If a woman’s being forced into this, or even has been indoctrinated into this, there’s a far bigger conflict for her than if it was much earlier on as with most abortions. Something which I reckon skews the argument quite considerably.

I take your point: would I want to be a hero? No, maybe not. But if the law sanctioned it, I’d feel that my abusers (and that’s what they are) would have the state’s backing, not me. If it remained illegal, I might feel relief that the state could prevent this on my behalf.

Of course the way out is education (and support for the victims) rather than legislation per se. But I do think we should take a moral stand with this: termination of foetuses on the basis of gender is a truly despicable form of sexism, one which attacks the woman at the very least (they are abused for “making” the “mistake” of being pregnant with the “wrong” gender). And it’s a practice which, left unchecked in some parts of the world, has caused massive social dysfunction (not least continuing to bolster the belief that females are inferior – and we all know that the only route to social equality is the emancipation of women and girls*). We should be very wary of allowing this line to be crossed.

*So sayeth the UN, Amnesty, numerous charities, and more studies than you can shake a pregnancy test at.

Written By Chloe on February 27th, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

“When it comes to things we do to our own body, that we want to do to our own body, it is really not the state’s role to intervene because it thinks we are wrong.”
This is really old-school. I don’t think it works. There are, again, a huge range of scenarios in which the state intervenes because it thinks we are wrong.
Indeed, pretty much all law is intervention to persuade us to use our bodies in different ways on the basis of what the state thinks is wrong. To argue otherwise is to argue for classical liberalism – the idea that the purpose of law is to maximise negative liberty. E.g., the state currently legislates to persuade me not to use my body to break into banks, because it thinks theft is wrong; it legislates to persuade me not to use my body to punch people in the face, because it thinks violence is wrong. The difference between my right to control my body in these scenarios and my right to control my body when considering having an abortion is that, in the latter, there does not appear to be another person’s body (or mind, for that matter) whose liberty will be infringed (pace Ron Paul).
On this classical liberal reading of the function and constraints of law, you are going to have to do pretty hard work to justify the kind of economic regulation and redistributive taxation we might want.
But classical liberalism is also incoherent. Firstly, it is often made incoherent by proponents who attempt to claim that in a liberal state the law is not used to persuade us to behave according to certain moral principles: judgments about the role of the state are moral judgments, so judgments in favour of a limited role will imply certain kinds of moral judgments as regards certain actions.
Secondly, it is based on the idea that (1) an individual is best placed to know how to pursue her own happiness, and that (2) the pursuit of happiness is the proper goal of human activity, and that (3) the purpose of statecraft is to help us acheive the proper goal of human activity (i.e. utility). Now, given (1), if I decide that the best way to pursue my own happiness is to oppress others, the government should give me the liberty to do so – except that given (1) it must also protect these others from non-oppression (c1). Unfortunately, given (2) it is not at all clear that by sticking to statecraft principle (c1), the state will fulfill its function and so satisfy (3). This is because the state cannot determine that the balance of felicifics issuing from exercising (c1) in any given case of potential oppression will be higher than the balance of felicifics issuing from allowing the oppression (~c1). (~c1) follows from all the arguments about neuropsychological skepticism by which we established (1) (which I haven’t included here, but which I am sure you can imagine). If we abandon those arguments, we should really abandon (1).
We need to move beyond classical liberalism and ask the *real* question: what laws will produce a better society?

Written By Hugh on February 27th, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

Human beings are something more than vessels for the better society. More soon.

Written By Reuben on February 28th, 2012 @ 1:00 am

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