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Biting into the sour apple: liberal society, abortion rights and sex selection

The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has recently declared that it is impossible to deny abortions to women who base their decision on the sex of the foetus. This ruling came about after a case where a woman twice aborted foetuses because they were female. This upset not only the medical personnel, but also social minister Göran Hägglund who declared that it was horrible that people valued sexes differently. But while the majority of Swedes probably do think sex selection is immoral, the right to free abortion is equally strongly held. This poses an interesting problem for socially and politically liberal societies like Sweden: allow gender selection, or try to restrict abortion?

The board of health suggested a halfhearted workaround: there is no duty for medical personell to tell parents the sex of their child. But if parents ask, then the personell do have a duty to tell them if they know. It would be hard for doctors to censor information about a pregnancy to the mother. There are also home tests that allow gender testing at five weeks gestation, long before the Swedish abortion limit (although such tests have been plagued by inaccuracies, there is no reason to think they will always be uncertain).

In general liberal societies tend to regard women's right to terminate pregnancy to be involable, yet have a general distrust or moral outrage against sex selection since it is regarded as an expression of sexism. Since there are the same cultural and moral currents promoting women's right to their bodies and fighting sexism it is natural that the two views often go together.

Sexism is defined variously as assuming one sex being superior to the
other, a hatred or dislike of one sex or having a limited and/or false
notion of one or more genders. But sex selection is not necessarily sexist. Studies of parental desires in the West suggest that the while the majority of families do not care about the sex of their offspring, many families wish for gender-balance. A subset of these would be willing to use sex selection to achieve balance. Discrimination is bad when it discriminates depending on irrelevant attributes. One might argue that the sex of the next child is irrelevant, but this must be left up to the family to determine – depending on the situation and nature of the family the sex could be very relevant to their happiness. It cannot be determined by an outside rule that sex is always irrelevant to families.

Sex selection based on the assumption of males (or females) being better, worse or being instrumentally important for some family project is clearly based in a sexist view. But again the problem lies in the sexism, not the ability to implement a sexist policy. Preventing the sex selection will not make the sexism go away. The rational thing to do is to work against sexism rather than a technology or the medical freedom of people. As the widespread desire for family balancing in the West shows, a deeply sexist culture can become relatively non-sexist in just a few generations, largely by strengthening rights rather than banning behaviors.

If sex selection were to cause strongly biased gender ratios and these were likely to lead to social problems there might be a social reason to prevent sex selection. But overall, the desire for sex selection does not appear to be very strong in the West. Historical examples of biased societies (such as 19th century Argentine and Singapore and the post-war male depleted Soviet Union) do not appear to have been so bad that they must be avoided at all costs. There hence seems there are no sufficiently pressing social reasons to infringe on the right to know what occurs in our bodies and women's right to abortion.

It hence seems that liberal societies have to put up with sex selection. It might sometimes be done as a result of bad attitudes that the majority does not accept, but having the legal right to act according to these attitudes is better than legal restrictions on reproduction.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. What about a country like India – sex selection is deeply rooted in son preference. Before the advent of new technologies to ascertain sex of the fetus, some communities killed baby girls or neglected them to such an extend that their survival was jeopardized. While women’s health advocates and feminist uphold the right to abortion, the practice of sex selection and concomitant masculine sex ratio cuts at the root of gender justice and equality. How then do we go about it in India? We cannot remain silent spectators of increasing girl deficit in our society nor should we loose the right to abortion… its a tough call…

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