Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Few More Thoughts about Sex Selection

Because I think this is an especially sensitive and contentious issue, I'd like to say a few more words in defense of what I wrote a few days ago on the topic of sex-based abortion, and the problems in India it is both a cause and a symptom of.

Why do I think that sex-based abortions, where a woman chooses to abort a fetus based on the indicated sex of the fetus, should be allowed? First, and importantly, there are a number of practical difficulties that attend the criminalization of sex-based abortions. As a friend pointed out to me in conversation:
If we are going to let women decide ultimately whether or not to have abortions, how could we possibly qualify the validity of the choices they make? I fear that if we disallowed sex-selective abortions by law, women in countries that favor boys over girls would either resort to infanticide (whether or not it is illegal) or would abort their children claiming some other "legitimate" reason of their choice.

And I agree. It is difficult to envision exactly how banning sex-based abortions can be brought into concordance with a generally pro-choice view of abortion.

But there's a larger element to this problem: that of gender inequality. While I understand that sex-based abortions are symptomatic of an underlying problem - the stigmatization and diminished importance of females in certain segments of Indian culture and society - I don't think that criminalizing the practice sends the correct message.

What is the message actually conveyed by India's sex-based abortion prohibition, a law which is clearly not respected by many and is largely unenforceable? Rather than acknowledging that gender inequality is a cultural and societal problem that needs to be seriously and immediately addressed, the abortion law pays lip service to gender equality without any real hope of affecting it. As Albert Einstein said, albeit in a different context (the 18th amendment), "nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced."

Instead of half-heartedly pursuing gender equality by trampling on reproductive freedoms, a process that is almost certain to disadvantage women more so than men, I think, perhaps, a different solution is in order. I’m not familiar enough with Indian society and gender relations to speak specifically on this point, and I know that this weakens my argument to a degree, but I think that there are other ways to address gender inequality and skewed sex ratios.

Perhaps I’m being naïve, or idealistic, but it strikes me that we should be able to have gender equality and reproductive freedom, without having to sacrifice one for the other. At the very least, I’d hope we could do more to explore that possibility before resorting to criminalization...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is something I have never understood- women who are pro choice who are now upset that women are using it to gender select. On one hand abortion is seen to help women and on the other to hinder women.

One of the things-and see the nanotech article- we must remember about technology and science, is that when we manipulate the world around us there may be unintended effects.

I think using abortion to sex select will have unintended consequences. If we look at what happened in China in regards to girl babies and their early demise.....and now there are many young men who will not have a partner, this could be a bit problematic.

Sun Apr 09, 02:04:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read the NYT Pro Life Nation today. Then think about how crazy this world can be.......

Sun Apr 09, 10:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

I don't (necessarily) disagree with your conclusion on sex-based abortion, but neither do I agree with several of your arguments.

Why do you assume that it is women who are choosing to abort their female foetuses? My guess would be that in a proportion of cases, perhaps a large proportion, it is just is much their husbands who are influencing the choice. Does this make any difference to your argument on a libertarian basis?

Why do you assume that making sex-based abortion illegal is "largely unenforceable"? It may be that the law is being flouted now. But that's not a good enough argument for not legislating, unless you are not even going to try to enforce it (which is obviously not the case); making the practice illegal is likely to reduce its prevalence over time. For example, laws banning suttee were widely flouted when first made, but suttee is not now considered culturally acceptable in general.

I think the problem turns on whether there are in fact some better ways to bring about the desired end of fewer abortions of female foetuses. Are there any? What might they be? (I can't think of any, but that may well be a failure of imagination). I think your para on this is a cop-out. You might not be able to suggest the best or only solution, but I think you need to propose some if you are going to say that legislation is not the way to go.

There are a very large number of people in the blogosphere who are good at criticising things/people/decisions/governments, and a much smaller number who are willing to offer specific alternatives to the things they disapprove of.

(Actually, having written this, I can think of another approach; legislating or using economic incentives to get rid of the dowry system. But it would be fantastically difficult to do in practice, I think).

Tue Apr 11, 04:40:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Tim Kanwar said...

potentilla: thank you for your well-considered comments. I'll attempt to address them, briefly, as best I can:

1) I think you're correct to suspect that, in many cases, the decision to abort is heavily influenced by the husband, and not solely the decision of the woman. However, given my pro-choice stance to abortion in general, I find it incompatible to argue that the government should intervene and decide whether or not to permit the abortion. That simply removes the choice from the husband to the state, while still keeping it out of the hands of the woman, where it belongs.

2) While making the practice of sex-based abortion illegal is likely to decrease its prevalence to some degree, this brute force approach comes with attendant costs. As I emphasized in my original approach, I believe that a better solution is to work to change the cultural and social institutions that encourage sex-based abortions in the first place. This would, if successful, address one of the root causes of sex-based abortions while carrying the simultaneous advantage of preserving a woman's right to choose.

You're right that criminalization might work, but I question whether it is the most desirable solution to this particular problem. I appreciate your sentiment that my reasoning on this point is unpersuasive, at best. And I can't say that I disagree. But I do think that is preferrable to recognize my own ignorance (I don't understand Indian culture or society nearly well enough to grasp why females are disfavored in the first place. And without understanding the root of the problem I feel unqualified, as well as unable, to suggest possible remedies) and admit uncertainty than to lend my support to a strategy that I understand (legislative proscription) but that I find problematic.

You're quite right that this is one of the evils of the blogosphere: criticizing without offering alternatives. I suppose the real alternative here would have been to keep my mouth shut - why criticize if you don't have something better in mind - but I'm not at all sure that's preferable. Critiquing the current practice starts a dialogue that, one hopes, will be expanded and pursued by others. While I may not have a viable alternative to the present system, I can hope that one of my readers will. Or, alternatively, that someone will show me the error of my ways by explaining why the present system is the best available after all.

Would I decriminalize sex-based abortions without a reasonable alternative to address the skewed sex ratios in parts of India? No, I wouldn't. But, as an interested observer, and not an Indian legislator, I think it's acceptable (although not desirable) to question certain practices, even though I'm unable to immediately provide a better alternative.

I hope that was responsive...


Sun Apr 16, 12:34:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

(1) is only true if you believe in pro-choice absolutely. Are there no circumstances, in your view, in which a woman should not be able to choose to abort? (A hard question, I know; personally, I am doubtful that a mother should be able to choose to abort a healthy foetus after about 28 weeks if there is no risk to her health, for instance)

(2) Legislation and your preferred method are not an either/or choice, of course. Perhaps the brute force approach would be justified whilst the details of your method (which at the moment sounds a bit like a magic wand) are worked out and applied.

The third option (to criticizing without offering alternatives, or keeping your mouth shut) is to throw out vague possibilities, in the hope that someone more knowledgeable will either offer further support, or shoot them down. IMHO this is preferable because lots of blog commentators are more likely to dash in with a comment on your suggestion (pro or anti) than to do the heavy lifting of making original suggestions themselves......

(Actually, when I am prompted to do some heavy lifting, I sometimes end up not commenting at all because by the time I've worked out what I might think, I've forgotten which post inspired the thought).

Mon Apr 17, 02:44:00 PM EDT  

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