Sex-based abortion divides pro-choicers on rights

11 de setembro de 2014


Sex-based abortion divides pro-choicers on rights

Kathryn Blaze Carlson | January 20, 2012 | Last Updated: Jan 20 8:58 PM ET
Mara Hvistendahl is pro-choice, except when she is not.
She believes a woman should have the right to terminate a pregnancy. Except if she is in China or India and wants to abort a female fetus because she was hoping it was a male. In those countries, the toll of “missing” girls is in the millions, despite existing bans on sex-based abortions.
While she said a ban in the Asian context “makes complete sense,” she is solidly against a U.S. bill that would criminalize the practice in America — the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act introduced by anti-abortion Republican Trent Franks last November.
Because it uses the words “child” or “girl” instead of “fetus,” the bill is “more about creating a precedent for a fetus equaling a life … than about restoring the balance of boys and girls in the world,” said the author of last year’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.
And Ms. Hvistendahl supports reproductive rights for women, but not necessarily when it comes to knowing the sex of the fetus she is carrying. A woman should have the choice of whether or not to abort, but not to know all the details about it.
“There’s no real need to know the [sex], and that could be an effective way to fight sex-selective abortion,” she said. She summed up her stance by saying: “You can believe in a right but still believe it has limits.”
The Canadian Medical Association Journal this week also urged Canadian doctors to limit women’s reproductive rights, recommending in an editorial that doctors conceal the sex of a fetus from all pregnant women until 30 weeks of pregnancy to curb the incidence of sex-based abortion in certain immigrant communities.
In pro-choice, feminist circles the idea of limiting a woman’s rights has long been condemned. But the idea of aborting female fetuses strictly because they are female, of discriminating against them because of their sex, may have presented feminist pro-choicers with a new and rather difficult challenge — a philosophical issue where a well-founded rejection of patriarchal cultural attitudes conflicts with an instinct to beat back any limits at all on a woman’s right to choose abortion.
More than 20 years ago, one American writer was already predicting the awkwardness that sex-based abortion might cause for feminist pro-choice activists.

“It’s a measure of feminist fanaticism that only recently have pro-choice activists announced their unwillingness to defend abortion as a method of sex selection,” wrote Martha Bayles in the April 1990 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. “Perhaps it occurred to them that sex-preferential practices have historically favored the male … If this was their reasoning, then it’s time to stand back and watch feminism collide with itself.”
With increased awareness about sex-selection abroad, and in countries like Canada with high levels of immigration from eastern, patriarchal societies, that collision may have already begun.
The pro-choice movement is anything but unanimously or easily decided on sex-based abortion. It is divided, whether publicly or behind closed doors, between the pro-choice absolutists who fear any concession marks a slippery slope, the feminists who loathe too much the idea of fewer females being born, and all those who carve out what several pro-choice activists called a “nuanced” position somewhere in the middle.
The ideological struggle was highlighted this week by an editorial in the Toronto Star, which has for years supported abortion rights in its editorial pages. The headline could have appeared in just about any pro-life brochure: “Every child is precious,” it read.
The Star opined that while sex-based abortion is “certainly a ‘repugnant practice,’” keeping the fetus’ sex from the parents “goes too far in subverting a pregnant woman’s right to know.”
Instead of denying parents information that is rightfully theirs, the Star said, “a better way forward would be to put greater effort into … educating those who persist in undervaluing females and opening their eyes to the worth of every child, regardless of its gender.”
But such reasoning implies a different standard for female fetuses. If Canada should work to “put greater effort into cultural change” when it comes to gender-based discrimination, should it also put greater effort into educating those who persist in undervaluing fetuses that, for example, have Down syndrome?
The obviously paramount tenet of the pro-choice movement is, well, choice, and those who support reproductive rights have long said a woman should be allowed to abort regardless of her rationale. But it seems sex is the line in the sand for some women in the pro-choice camp, or at least an uncomfortable grey area.
Take, for example, the online spat between two prominent pro-choice feminists in Britain last year. Laurie Penny, a New Statesman columnist, had written a column pegged to the millions of “missing” girls and said the evidence “howls with the ghosts of girl-children who died young, or who never lived.”
To that, Sofie Buckland, a columnist at the Guardian, tweeted: “If foetuses aborted due to their sex have ‘ghosts’ that ‘howl’, surely all foetuses do? PRO CHOICE FAIL.”
Remarkably, Ms. Penny had just one month prior written a column essentially saying a woman’s right to choose is more important than “individual superstitions about the spiritual status of the foetus.”
Ms. Buckland continued her Twitter tirade, at one point predicting Ms. Penny’s words — and similar ones spoken or written by other feminists — could someday arm the right-wing, anti-choice movement with the tools to “beat us with our own perceived hypocrisies.”
Joyce Arthur, executive director of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said it would, indeed, be hypocritical for a pro-choice group to support restrictions on a woman’s right to choose or even to information about her fetus. She said the coalition does not support a ban on sex-based abortions, nor does it support concealing the fetus’ sex until 30 weeks.
“As soon as you put any kind of restriction on abortion, it really is a slippery slope,” she said, adding that education is the key to reducing sex-based abortions around the world and in Canada, where the medical journal said hundreds of girls are aborted in favour of boys each year, mostly by immigrant women. “If you can restrict sex-based abortions, then why can’t you restrict abortions for genetic abnormalities? It’s not a road we should go down.”
Like the coalition, the pro-choice Women’s Federation of Quebec opposes any kind of ban or restriction on sex-based abortion. Still, the head of the federation called that particular practice “unacceptable.” When asked about abortions based on disability, however, Alexa Conradi called that a “personal, difficult decision, and not for me to judge.”
Several other Canadian abortion-rights groups contacted by the National Post affirmed their opposition to any restrictions, including the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, the Canadian arm of the National Abortion Federation, and Action Canada for Population and Development.
Perhaps revealing the difficulty of this terrain for activists traditionally clear-cut on unfettered abortion rights, some pro-choice groups were unready with a response to the question of sex-based abortion rights.
The P.E.I. Reproductive Rights Organization would not offer its stance, stating in an email that is “staying out of the ethics of abortion.” Other pro-choice groups said they could not immediately comment on the issue. One said it had to first confer with its board. Another replied hours later with a statement that relied on a UN report determining that regulatory restrictions on sex-based abortions are “ineffective” and “disproportionate.”
Angie Murie, executive director of Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, which is a member of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, said she would call the head office after her interview with the National Post, not because they “tell us what to do,” but to say: “We need to look at this. This is something we need to develop some sort of official governing thoughts about because this is a new one. This is a hard one.”
Ms. Murie, who said she has been a feminist since she was five years old, struggled with the issue but said she ultimately does not support any restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.
“I wrestle with gender-based abortion more than any other reason [a person might give for choosing to abort] … Gender? Geez,” Ms. Murie said. “From a macro perspective, I don’t think it’s a very good idea for us to be eliminating women. But if you look at it at the individual level, which is what we do, I don’t have any right to say that one person’s reason is better or worse than another’s.”
Ms. Conradi said she is concerned pro-life groups in Canada are watching the politically charged debate unfold in the U.S., and that they will “pick up on the strategies used to divide and attack abortion rights.” Ms. Arthur, meantime, said a rift in the U.S. pro-choice movement could lead to silence, just as it did when it came to the passing of the 2003 partial-birth abortion ban.
“If the issue is let go, then that could leave the field open for restrictions,” she said.
Some groups might also decide not to fight a ban on sex-based abortion — either politically or legally — for fear they might see their funding slashed by their conservative supporters, Ms. Hvistendahl said, or because it might be an unpopular position among the mainstream. According to a September 2011 poll commissioned by the Canadian pro-life group LifeCanada, 92% of Canadians think sex-based abortion should be illegal.
Perhaps Ms. Hvistendahl best captured the quandary faced by pro-choicers everywhere when, in her book, she quoted an unnamed UN Populations Fund employee describing the “challenge” of communicating the organization’s position on sex-based selection: “How do you hold on to this discrimination tag and at the same time talk about safe abortion and access to it? It has been a huge challenge for us … We are walking a tightrope.”
National Post

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