IT IS A WONDERFUL CASE of man-bites-dog, but don't expect to see this headline in any newspaper: "Bush administration's efforts to protect women through United Nations action thwarted by European Union."
Yet that is exactly what happened at the recently concluded Commission on the Status of Women, where the United States' intention to help women (in this case, girls) ran afoul of dominant feminist orthodoxy. The Bush administration introduced a resolution condemning the killing of girls, because they are girls. Such acts include old-fashioned infanticide, the kind of cultural practice the British tried to stamp out in the bygone days of colonial India, as well as the evermore popular use of modern sonogram technology in order to identify and eliminate girls before they are born--what is called sex-selective abortion.
And this is where the United States met the opposition of the European Union and its allies: abortion-on-demand orthodoxy seems to mean women's total freedom to choose, even if that choice eliminates the next generation of women, for the very reason that they are women.
The Bush administration's concern about infanticide and sex-selective abortion is not exaggerated; although numbers are difficult to establish, most demographers believe that millions of girls are now killed in this manner every year. The British medical journal Lancet recently surmised that there were perhaps 100 million "missing" girls in the world, girls not allowed to grow into women. China is the largest offender; in many regions, some as large and as highly populated as average-sized countries, there are now 130 boys born for every 100 girls (the normal ratio is 104 boys to 100 girls). Beyond the individual injustices involved, this creates a potential demographic calamity. Nobody knows what will happen to a society in which 40 million men cannot find wives, but, already, there are reports of widespread rapes, forced marriages, and human trafficking. In ten years time, when the problem is more acute, the Chinese government might even find it necessary to send its excess men on a military "adventure" of some kind, in order to mitigate the social instability at home.
India is the second largest offender, proving that the problem transcends any particular culture. In fact, the practice of sex-selective abortion is spreading throughout nearly every region on earth. There are four cultural factors that must be present for sex-selective abortion to arise: a traditional preference for sons, reduced fertility and family size, availability of sonogram technology, and cultural acceptance of abortion. It is these four factors, and the resulting sex-imbalance now so apparent in countless maternity wards, playgrounds and classrooms, that link such disparate nations as Libya and Luxembourg, Egypt and El Salvador.
It is perhaps obvious why sex-selective abortion is an embarrassment to feminism: while the preference for sons is deeply rooted in history, the other factors, such as reduced family size and cultural acceptance of abortion, are central pillars of feminist thought. Since at least the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, feminist champions have argued that international "gender justice" could only be established if women possessed the reproductive rights necessary to reduce their family sizes, thereby liberating them for higher education and successful careers. This is as close to established wisdom as is found at the United Nations, and it is so dominant that there is even a phrase--the "gender perspective"--suggesting that all problems, from peace keeping, to land mine removal, to water supply management, could be solved if they were examined through this proper feminist point-of-view.
So imagine the shock and shame when it became obvious that many of these newly-liberated women have been using their liberty to abort their own unborn girls. Research has even suggested that sex-selective abortion is especially prevalent among rich, urban, educate women in China, the pioneers, the type of women presumably leading the world into a genderless future. It is never pleasant to be forced to admit that one's revolutionaries have begun to devour their own.
And then there is abortion, itself. The European Union's civil society allies at the United Nations openly campaign for an international right to abortion-on-demand--and abortion-on-demand must really mean abortion-for-any-reason. So when China considered prohibiting sex-selective abortion in 2002, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), perhaps the most influential pro-abortion non governmental organization, labeled the proposal "problematic." Sex-selective abortion remains legal in China to this day.
CRR was certainly on the scene during the recent negotiations, advising the European Union, China, and India to reject the U.S. resolution condemning the practice. When the United States refused to let the subject drop and demanded that it at least be mentioned in a lesser document, the word abortion was not used and the problem was blamed simply on good-old fashioned male chauvinism--son preference. At the end of the session, in the final U.S. "Explanation of Position," the United States pointedly observed that, "We are happy that the document condemns female infanticide and 'harmful practices of prenatal sex selection,' which is universally understood to include sex-selective abortion, even if some delegations insisted that this practice not be called by its real name."
As strange as it may sound, under President George W. Bush the United States has perhaps the finest feminist record of any nation at the United Nations--if feminism exists to address grave and profound injustices against women. It has been the United States, for instance, which has raised such issues as trafficking in women, sexual exploitation, and sex tourism. It was the United States that attempted to draw the world's attention to mass rapes being conducted in Burma (only to be told that the United Nations would not publicize the U.S. effort because America did not use the current dictator's name for his county, Myanmar). And now the United States is attempting to address sex-selective abortion.
The U.S. Explanation of Position concluded by stating that the outcome of the two weeks of negotiations "lends itself to the impression that the CSW is in danger of becoming a highly politicized body more concerned with preserving its ideological orthodoxy than in solving real problems facing real women and girls today." Seven years into the Bush administration, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the administration itself, remains surprised when its good intentions are once again undermined by such ideological orthodoxy.
Douglas A. Sylva is a senior fellow at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.