Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion. Advocates of Roe and abortion rights frequently portray abortion as a matter of “women’s rights” or as a “women’s issue.” Abortion, it is said, is crucial to women’s equality – to the ability of women to control their own lives and destinies. As for the fetus, the usual argument is that fetal human life is not yet, really, actual human life but only “potential life” and thus not truly a human person. Abortion is thus morally allowable and, for the sake of advancing the freedom and equal social status of women, must be left to a woman’s unrestricted choice.
So the argument goes. But the gender-equality-female-empowerment case for abortion rights is vulnerable to a simple question: What do you think of sex-selection abortion?
Consider posing the question to a thoughtful pro-choice friend. Or ask it of yourself if you think of yourself as pro-choice on abortion. Do you favor or oppose a legal right to abortion even for purposes of sex-selection of a born child – that is, abortion had because (typically) the child otherwise to be born would be a girl? If not, why not? The answers to such a question produces reveal a great deal about our abortion debate, and the often-unexamined premises of the pro-choice position.
Consider first the raw numbers. Worldwide, sex-selection abortion is distressingly common. Each year, millions of abortions are committed because the child is discovered to be a female, a fact now easily revealed by ultrasound early in pregnancy. Statistically, it is clear that abortion is widely used specifically to prevent the births specifically of baby of girls. In 1991, Harvard economist Amartya Sen examined birth-ratio disparities and demonstrated that “More Than 100 Million Women are Missing” (the title of his New York Review of Books article). Today the number of missing and presumed dead stands at 160 million women and girls – undesired females killed by abortion or infanticide. The incidence of sex-selection abortion of girls is more pronounced in certain Asian populations, but it exists in western nations as well, including the United States.
The reality of sex-selection abortion assaults the premises underlying the abortion-rights position. The “women’s rights” argument doubles back on itself in this setting. A right to abortion, in the name of gender equality, ends up being a right to abort girls because they are girls. What does that do to the notion that abortion advances gender equality and women’s rights? If abortion on the basis of the sex of the child to be born – killing girls because they are not boys – is not sex discrimination and gender-based violence, it is hard to know what is. And if abortion produces a gender-skewed human population, a world in which women and girls are systemically culled and their percentage of the population reduced – and it does – it is very hard to think this an advance for women’s freedom and equality. Demographers and some feminists have coined a term for this war on women: gendercide.
Whatever one’s views on abortion as a general proposition, surely sex-selection abortion should be banned. Most reasonable people, including many who think of themselves as pro-choice, agree. Polls show 90 percent or more of Americans oppose sex-selection abortion. It does nothing to further equality or protect women and girls. Quite the reverse, the practice devalues and kills female humans for the sin of being female. Those most committed to promoting the equal status of women and girls should be the most committed to banning sex-selection abortion. If sex-selection abortion is not wrong, nothing is wrong.