Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

The Politics of Sex Selective Abortion Bans

In both the UK and the US, cynical activists are exploiting a real issue.

On September 5, the London Daily Telegraph ran not one, not two, but seven stories about sex-selective abortions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Why? Sarah Ditum suggested in the New Statesman on September 7 that

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the campaign against sex-selective abortion is a cynical effort to take choice away from pregnant women.

The day before, however, Telegraph assistant comment editor Tom Chivers wrote,

Pro-choice feminists should be more appalled than anyone by the sex-selection abortion story.

Of course, both statements can be true. What happened, in short, was that in February 2012, the Telegraph conducted a sting that caught two doctors agreeing, on tape, to perform abortions for sex selection. These were never carried out, which seems to be the main reason why rather than starting criminal proceedings the Crown Prosecution Service decided to leave it to the General Medical Council.

Abortion politics in the UK are considerably different than in the US, and generally have a much lower profile. There is an anti-abortion rights lobby, which of course objected (and was quoted by the Telegraph, a conservative paper, and the Daily Mail, its down-market equivalent), and the Health Secretary asked the Attorney General to review the decision. But in most quarters this seems to have been treated as a minor matter. What seems blatantly obvious is that the newspaper was (again) trying to sell papers.

In the US, however, opponents of abortion rights have been working for years to use antipathy about sex selection as a weapon in their all-out assault on reproductive rights. Just this week, sex-selective abortion was thus wielded at a hearing of a Congressional subcommittee chaired by Chris Smith (R-NJ), a consistent opponent of abortion, who boasts a 0% rating from NARAL and a 100% rating from the NLRC.

The account of the hearing on Smith's website blames sex selection worldwide on Planned Parenthood and the Population Council. It cites Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection, as if she supports the anti-choice efforts, when in fact her book details the origins of the right-wing strategy to promote deceptive sex-selection abortion bans. This is not the first time the antis have actively tried to co-opt her work, as Hvistendahl explains in a 2011 Foreign Policy article titled "The Abortion Trap: How America's obsession with abortion hurts families everywhere."

Like Hvistendahl, many pro-choice groups and individuals are both deeply troubled by sex selection and alarmed by cynical efforts to use it to chip away at abortion rights. Since 2009, more than 60 federal and state bills have been introduced to ban abortions performed on the basis of sex or race. These efforts have been drawing increased attention, including a lawsuit in Arizona and a legal challenge in North Dakota. The National Asian Pacific Women's Forum has been taking a strong leadership position on these "thin-end-of-the-wedge" bills, arguing that sex selection is a problem but that abortion bans are not the solution:

We know the real solution to ending the preference for sons in some families is getting to the root of the problem: gender inequity. If lawmakers truly want to help us, we call on them to promote equal pay, access to education, health equity, and ending violence against women.

Pete Shanks is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed.

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