Gendercide: the questions pro-choicers don’t want to answer
by Oxford Students for Life
At the end of February, the House of Commons rejected a bill that sought to spell out the illegality, under the 1967 Abortion Act, of sex-selective abortion. The bill, proposed by Fiona Bruce MP, called for a clarification in the law that the terms of the Act do not allow abortion based on the sex of the unborn. It was shot down 292-201. Many have claimed that sex-selective abortion is illegal, including the Health Secretary. But there’s no explicit stipulation in the law preventing it, as BPAS’s Ann Furedi has pointed out. And the Crown Prosecution Service has twice blocked a prosecution against Drs. Prabha Sivaraman and Palaniappan Rajmohan, whom the Telegraph caught on camera agreeing to procure gender-based abortions in 2012. So the question has to be asked again: is sex-selective abortion legal in Britain? By default and in practice, it seems to be.
This isn’t an easy conclusion to face. The question of sex-selective abortion has cut across typical lines of opinion, perhaps more so than any other question in the abortion debate. Most people, even many who are pro-choice, seem to see something deeply wrong in aborting unborn children – usually girls – based on their sex. The trouble is that once you dig a bit deeper into what exactly is wrong with sex-selective abortion, you end up asking questions that defenders of abortion don’t want to answer.
There are many reasons to be repelled by the idea of sex-selective abortion, or “gendercide” as its critics have dubbed it. For those of us who are repelled by the idea of all abortions, the sexism of gendercide is a blatant insult added to a far more profound injury. For those who don’t object to other reasons for aborting, however, the issue becomes murkier. If it’s acceptable to abort an unborn girl because she’ll be expensive to raise, she has Down Syndrome, or her parents don’t love each other, why isn’t it acceptable to abort her because she’s a girl? Legal abortions are defended as beneficial for women who want to have them; practically speaking, that benefit isn’t altered if the child’s sex is the main motive for a termination.
A number of pro-choice commentators have ended up defending sex-selection, making this very point. But those who defend sex-selective abortion must resort to doing so by fixating on choice in a way that suppresses ethical discussion of the content of that choice. Humans can make good and bad decisions, and the point of ethical discussion is to evaluate what those are. Defending gendercide by giving choice an absolute primacy is a preemptive way of avoiding the real question at hand.
This is a philosophically embarrassing issue for pro-choice feminists. You can’t oppose sex-selective abortions without admitting that abortion is sometimes wrong, and you can’t accept sex-selective abortions without admitting that explicit gender discrimination is sometimes permissible. This is what has made the debate about sex-selective abortion so revealing. This issue calls abortion into question on precisely the grounds that are usually used to defend it, showing that legal abortion may not actually be the feminist victory it’s touted as.
The question of sex-selective abortion isn’t going to go away, and nor should it. Pro-life people who want to win hearts and minds need to push this point, because the gendercide issue draws out serious problems in contemporary pro-choice arguments. And pro-choice people who want to secure the right to abortion even based on the sex of the child need to ask themselves if a feminism that allows for discrimination against and selective destruction of girls is worth defending – or can be called feminism at all.