In 1995, I was as yet an only child. I had been born in the last outpost of the British Empire, a state that was still governed and policed by Britain despite its South Asian location. By 1995, plans were in motion to hand the city-state of Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and my parents decided to move their growing family back to England. My brother was born a few months later. Although as expatriates the rule may not have affected them, the PRC’s one-child policy must have been a factor in their decision. Decision being the key word: my mother had a choice.
In the PRC, where society has a preference for sons over daughters and male children are valued highly, the one-child policy has led to an increase in sex-selective abortions. Colloquially known as ‘gendercide,’ the abortion of pregnancies because the gender has been discovered to be female is also on the rise in other South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Taiwan. On one level it is understandable. Although China is industrializing quickly, over 300 million farmers still work for very little money, and it could be argued that sons might be preferred for labour efficiency. Similarly, in cultures where the marriage of a daughter requires the payment of a dowry, where sons but not daughters are expected to look after their parents in old age, or where a married daughter cannot contribute to her parents’ finances, having a son instead could be a major economic advantage. However, the relative absence of sex-selective abortion in other developing areas such as Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean indicates that the important factor here is the culture, not the economy: lineage, not labour. Sex-selective abortions occur in places with cultural practices that devalue women and consistently deprive them of choice. This is why, even if we are vehemently pro-choice, we must look at legislating sex-selective abortion.
In the PRC and India, sex-selective abortion is already illegal: in fact, it is even illegal to inform parents of gender. Evidently I am not calling for the illegalization of a practice that is already illegal. Illegalizing something does not make it go away, and doctors throughout South Asia continue to test pregnant women for gender and perform abortions based on sex selection. Alternatively, women who fear the legal repercussions give birth to an unreported daughter and abandon her to an orphanage or death. Many of these ‘missing daughters’ are sold into prostitution. Outright illegalization is not the path, but too often we in the pro-choice movement swing from illegalization to legalization without considering the middle ground. But it is more complex than that. Where abortion is legal, sex-selective abortion is legal, since there is no requirement to prove your reasons. If we are truly pro-choice, we must support the legalization of abortion with legislation around sex-selective abortion.
This is because sex-selective abortion is not always a woman’s choice. In cultures that do not value daughters, decisions are often made by men. Fathers, brothers, and husbands coerce women into repeated abortions. In India, where sex-selective abortion is illegal but on the rise, there have been many cases of women reporting family members to authorities in the belief that the illegality of the practice will help them. But culture dominates, and suits such as these are often ignored or light sentences handed out. The woman is then exposed to the disapproval of her society, risking the loss her job and often subject to violence. Pressuring a woman into an abortion against her consent should be illegal. If sex-selective abortion is legalized without this kind of legislation being introduced and rigorously implemented, women will have less choice and be in more danger. Western, liberal feminism has often been accused of failing to understand the situation of women around the world, and applying Western, liberal ideas in places where they bear no relevance. I am pro-choice and believe abortion should be legal, but I am lucky enough to live in a society where those two things go hand in hand. In other cultures, the term ‘pro-choice’ is much more nuanced, and total freedom often inhibits female choice more than considered legislation. Freedom in this situation does not mean the abolishment of one law, but the introduction of more. Laws that punish men and women who pressure others into unwanted abortions. Laws that prevent doctors from charging higher fees for the ‘exclusivity’ of a sex-selective abortion. Measures to educate families on the potential economic advantages of having a daughter, introduce more opportunities for women in the workplace, and support those parents who undeniably lose money by not having a son.
I have focused here on sex-selective abortion in South Asia because that is where my experience and knowledge lies, but I understand there is also an ongoing debate in America, with some groups wishing to specifically illegalize sex-selective abortions. Much of my research has indicated the practice is on the increase within immigrant South Asian communities, although I have seen no conclusive evidence of this. If that is the case, it must be assessed whether women in those communities face similar pressures as those outlined above. The debate in America seems to be Western liberalism vs. Western conservatism and I would again reiterate that this issue is more complex than that. The legal/illegal binary cannot apply to this situation, and legal/illegal does not always equate to freedom/restriction. Legislation must be introduced that protects a woman’s choice.
Written by Abbey Lewis
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