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Abortion on the grounds of sex

Apparently some UK doctors have been aborting babies because their parents don’t want a baby of that sex. In response the government is now planning to outlaw  abortion on the grounds of sex. It is already illegal, however, so we must wonder what the politicians are up to.  A question being ignored is whether it is right or  wrong to abort on the grounds of sex. I am going to consider various grounds on which abortion is considered permissible and examine whether that permissibility is consistent with abortion on the grounds of sex being forbidden.

Officially, abortion in the UK is only available on medical grounds (see), specifically, that an abortion is less harmful to a woman’s health than the pregnancy. It is apparently obvious to the politicians that the sex of the baby is irrelevant to the mother’s health: but in that case abortion on grounds of sex is already illegal. Consequently there is no real reason to change the law and the politicians are probably just pandering to some or other faction to buy their votes.

Despite this,  I can think of one bizarre kind of case in which it might be legal: that because of a mother’s hatred of men (or her hatred of women) to bear a baby boy (or girl) would mentally unhinge her. The  immorality of her hatred would be irrelevant to whether it would be less harmful to her health to abort or continue the pregnancy: all that matters is the causal fact. This example challenges the plans to change the law to explicitly forbid abortion on the grounds of sex. If the basis of the law is truly and only the question of whether the abortion is less harmful to a woman’s health than the pregnancy, the woman of my bizarre case satisfies that criterion. So, in fact, it should not be illegal to abort on the grounds of sex because there are strange cases in which those grounds are relevant to the mother’s health.

This, however, is all a mere dalliance with fig leaves. In reality,we have abortion on demand in the UK. Consequently if the government brings in this law it will make no difference. Even if a woman is stupid enough to go into a clinic saying she wants an abortion to get rid of her baby because of its sex the professionals involved can be relied on to steer her into saying the right things (since that is what they do already). Set all that aside. The question of interest is whether abortion on the grounds of sex if forbidden given the permissibility of abortion.

Cases in which the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life are relatively easily handled on the grounds of the right of defence against an innocent threat to life. For example, the fact that a falling innocent landing on you would save their life does not oblige you to stay put when their landing on you poses a danger to you. Some people would still reject abortion in such cases when pregnancy is voluntary and that is certainly a relevant consideration. However, most people have no objection to abortion in these circumstances and if they are right, then if the sex of the baby were a threat to the mother’s life aborting on the ground of sex would be permissible.

There are two approaches to defending abortion in cases where there is no threat to the mother’s life: one based on denying that the baby is a person, the other based on denying the personhood of the baby entails the impermissibility of abortion. In the former case the mere human-ness of the human life is held to be morally irrelevant: only persons have a right to life. Since the baby is not yet a person and since the mother is at liberty to do as she chooses with her body and its contents, aborting it is permissible.

In the latter case the defence is by analogy to the well known example from Judith Thomson. In this example you wake up to find you have been kidnapped and attached in such a way that you are sustaining the life of a brilliant violinist, who will thereby die if you detach yourself. Thomson’s point is that the personhood of the violinist and the fact that he will die if you detach does not mean you are violating his right to life if you detach. You are free to do so. By analogy, the similar status and dependence of the baby on the mother is insufficient to make abortion a violation of the baby’s right to life. Attempts to evade this by the forcible nature of kidnapping explaining the permissibility of detaching lead to allowing abortion only for rape. So if the analogy is taken to defend abortion generally then that explanation cannot hold.

Plainly, each of these defences (if correct) suffice to make abortion permissible, and the permissibility is quite general. The mother is at liberty to abort and therefore has a right to abortion on demand.

I am not going to discuss either of these defences. For the sake of argument I am going to grant that they succeed and consider whether, supposing abortion to be a right, abortion is impermissible on the grounds of sex.

Starting with the baby not being a person, it is quite obvious that if the human-ness of the human life is morally irrelevant because only persons have a right to life,  the mere sex of the human life is no more relevant, and hence if babies are not people aborting them on the grounds of sex is permissible.

Suppose aborting persons is permissible. An obvious challenge to denying aborting such persons on the ground of their sex is a bad medical condition (i.e. of a kind generally accepted to be a good reason for an abortion) that is correlated with one sex and that is completely undetectable except by family history and sex of baby. Here it looks like aborting any baby of the relevant sex in the relevant families would be permissible.

Consider cases of perfectly healthy babies. We are assuming that it is permissible to abort persons. Suppose it is impermissible to abort persons on the grounds of their sex. Now since we are assuming that it is permissible to abort persons on demand, this means it is not the mother’s reasons for wanting an abortion that matter but only the external facts. Consequently, the impermissibility can only amount to personhood + having a sex conjoined make abortion impermissible even though personhood alone does not. Since the only difference to make the difference is having a sex, it would have to be that, in the case of persons, having a sex is what makes abortion impermissible. Consequently only sexless persons may be aborted. But this contradicts the permissibility of aborting persons in general. Hence the supposition must be rejected: it is permissible to abort persons on the grounds of their sex.

I have, perhaps, rather laboured this. What is essentially doing the work is the right to an abortion on demand being a liberty right. Liberty rights are freedoms to do as we please. So it is up to the mother to do as she pleases for whatever reason she pleases. Consequently, if she wants to abort on the grounds of sex, she is free to do so.

Many people believe that abortion is a right and abortion on the grounds of sex is forbidden.  I have shown that if abortion  is a right then abortion on the grounds of sex is permissible. It follows that if abortion on the grounds of sex is forbidden then there is no right to abortion on demand.  Consequently I have shown those people to have contradictory beliefs and they must therefore give up at least one. You have to choose.  So, which is it to be? Is abortion on demand a right or is abortion on the grounds of sex forbidden. You can’t have both.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. There are, it seems to me, two reasons to object to abortion as a method of sex selection:

    (1) It shows a lack of proper respect for persons generally by revealing sexist prejudice. This is most plausible if it is female fetuses being aborted. In the same way we could think selective abortion of fetuses that we (if it were possible) could predict would grow up to be homosexual or transgender is wrong, or (as many believe) aborting fetuses we suspect will be disabled is wrong, we might think aborting female fetuses is wrong.

    (2) It could have bad consequences, in particular, disrupting a (supposedly valuable) gender balance in the population.

    Either of these conditions could render certain abortive conditions wrong, even if we generally think there is a right to abortion. This is because the general permissibility of abortion could be seen as legal position rather than a moral one. And this, to my mind, is the most plausible view.

    Even if we think abortion is morally permissible following either of the arguments you mention, this doesn’t entail that it’s never wrong to have an abortion. Suppose someone had an abortion of a baby they wanted and would have cared for lovingly, simply to spite a pro-life family member. That seems to be a bad reason to have an abortion, and that person would be open to moral criticism. But even though we might want to say this act was morally wrong, we wouldn’t want to criminalize this kind of abortion, for the same reason we don’t want to criminalize any number of morally wrong actions.

    If we believe either (1) or (2) above, we might think that criminalizing sex selective abortion would be appropriate. It certainly wouldn’t stop all cases of it, because as you mention, there are several work-arounds. But having prohibitions in place would offer some forms of disincentive, and might promote the kinds of norms we want promoted. And since many people in fact value honesty, even when it fails to help them achieve their ends, we might expect that fewer sex selective abortions would occur.

    I don’t have a settled view on this, because I’m not sure how successful (1) and (2) are. But I do think there is a more of a legitimate argument here than you seem to think.

  2. Many people would be reluctant to say that having a child is a right, and thus symmetrically, to say that preventing one’s from having a child is a right. Instead, they would see abortion as a procedure that should always be justified pro toto, depending on how various reasons weigh and add up. So for all cases where abortion is not justified pro toto, i.e. when people abort for frivolous reasons such as sex, or eye colour, ect., it is not justified.

    The source of this requirement, justify abortion to others, seems to be the same as for any action that might concern others in a contractuarian set up: our actions bear consequences to others — in particular, future babies — and thus should be made justifiable to them.

    But in this particular case, that of abortion, there is ample room for arguing that concern for possible, future people does not exhaust the requirement for justifiability to others. For instance, one might argue on consequentialism grounds that if frivolous reasons to abort were sufficient for justifying abortion, we’d make something such as “trivialize a life” — where this phrase is supposed to denote the attitude of making creating a life nothing over and above a means of expressing our preferences, values and feelings — with complete disregard of the interests of possible, future beings. If this makes sense, then it would be bad to allow abortion in any case where there is not enough reasons for ruling out the trivialization of a life.

    Of course, there is enought such reasons in all cases where abortion would relieve harm to either the mother or her future baby.

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