Sex Selective Abortion OK or Not? Feminists Can’t Decide

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Practically speaking, sex-selective abortion is a non-issue today, because anyone who wants to have one can whether or not it’s technically against the law. If a woman can have a test to check her child’s sex, and she can have an abortion at any time after that, she can have a sex-selective abortion so long as she doesn’t explicitly say that’s why she wants to kill the child.

But the issue still raises questions among feminists, who can’t decide whether female solidarity or individual female choice is more important:

Supervisor David Chiu wants San Francisco to become the first American city to oppose any ban on sex-selection abortions. It apparently has not occurred to him why no other city has chosen to do so.

Journalist Mara Hvistendahl, author of “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” estimates that sex-selection abortions have “claimed over 160 million potential women and girls — in Asia alone.” Thus it is rather disturbing to watch one of the most liberal politicians in liberal San Francisco grandstand in defense of a practice that devalues — destroys, actually — girls.

In other communities, people think it is immoral for a woman to abort a fetus because of her — or his — gender. You can support the right to abortion, yet still cringe at the thought that some women choose to abort a girl because they want a boy.

Somehow self-styled feminists have twisted support for abortion rights so that it trumps women’s very right to exist. Chiu’s bill has four female co-authors — supervisors Jane Kim, Katy Tang, London Breed and Malia Cohen. Mayor Ed Lee is supposed to be the adult in City Hall. According to his office, he expects to sign the measure. Sometimes San Francisco can be so liberal that it’s illiberal.

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: feminists don’t give a damn about the baby who is to be aborted. If they did, they’d work to prevent abortion rather than expand it. But what they do care about is the principle of female solidarity, which is worth the lives of millions of babies.

Sex selective abortion is rare in developed countries, because we can afford the extra expense of raising girls. It is practiced almost entirely in places where it is dictated by economics, such as rural India and China. In India, the problem is that girls require a dowry; families must pay men to marry the women. In China there is bride price, which mitigates the problem somewhat, but Chinese girls are essentially “lost” to the family when they marry. Their husband’s family, and his mother in particular, benefit most from her adult labor. Therefore mothers prefer to have sons, who will increase her wealth and comfort in old age.



Muslims, on the other hand, do not have such a preference for boys, because there are very strong bonds between Muslim women and their fathers and brothers. Even after marriage, a Muslim woman tends to keep a close relationship with her siblings and birth family.

If feminists were really concerned about sex-selective abortion, then perhaps they should learn from the Muslims and encourage closer relationships between women and the men in their family. Because women ultimately decide whether to keep or kill a child, and few laws will change that, perhaps the only way to exert some influence is to give women an incentive to have daughters. Because women do not like to support others – including other women – the best way to do that might be to increase the appeal of daughters to fathers and brothers, as the Muslims have done, which would indirectly incentivize bearing daughters.

But because they aren’t really concerned about it in a practical way, but rather simply as an ideological principle, we can only use this internal dispute to better understand the nature of feminism itself.

What we can take away from it is this:

The point is disputed because feminism requires two supporting pillars. One is female solidarity, and the other sexual power (and, more broadly, identity). The two must combine in such a way as to be a political force. If one works against the other feminism fails.

Say that sexual power and solidarity were at loggerheads as in, for example, a highly unequal society. If, by betraying her “sisters,” a woman could profit immensely, this would undermine feminism a great deal, which is why the descent of the US to developing world norms will kill feminism as a mass movement.

The other thing that will guarantee the destruction of feminism is the ethnic angle, which is what prompted San Francisco politicians to legalize the sex-selective abortions in the first place:

Where does this resolution even come from?

“A coalition of Asian American and reproductive rights, health and justice organizations has formed to educate the public about the stereotyping inherent in sex-selective abortion bans, to condemn the rhetoric of ban advocates as deeply offensive and organize to defeat such discriminatory policies,” quoth the resolution. Activists contend that bans on sex-selection abortion, which have been passed in eight states, are designed to limit access to abortion, not gender-based feticide.

In a press release issued by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Chiu said, “The rhetoric used by legislators advocating these measures is perpetuating racial stereotypes, is deeply offensive and can lead to the denial of health care services to women. No woman should ever be scrutinized by her doctor based on her racial or ethnic background, but that is exactly what a sex-selective abortion ban encourages.”

When we talked on the phone Thursday, Chiu told me, “There is no evidence that sex-selective abortions are happening in the United States. The legislative bans are based on racial stereotypes. We shouldn’t be passing laws that could potentially cause doctors to not provide care or consider turning women in to authorities for these laws.”

Chiu has a point. There’s no evidence that the practice is common among Asian American women, or even urban women in China. It’s a stereotype that applies only in the poorer hamlets in China and India. White feminist moral grandstanding runs up against the ethnic pride of Asian Americans here, and it will do so more and more often with nonwhites as time goes on and more people gain the courage to confront the incredible privilege white women have.

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