Autonomy and Abortion Access

We need more girls to be born they say. We need to stop the ‘gendercide’ that is taking place across the world, they say. For social justice. For women’s rights. For human rights.

While this is a compelling argument when taken at face value, if we take a moment to examine it more closely, the true nature of the discourse becomes clear. It sounds as though it is for women’s rights but in reality is it putting restrictions on them, using the excuse of sex determination while doing so.

If we are to recognize safe abortion as a right for women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, then we cannot sit in judgement of which reason for it being unwanted is acceptable to us or not. This is especially true when people are uncomfortable around what is called a ‘selective’ abortion, whether it is for the sex of the fetus or a disability.

One could say simplistically that every abortion is in fact a selective abortion! That particular pregnancy is being terminated because it is not wanted. It is being ‘selected out’ of the reproduction cycle for some reason.

But of course when we say ‘selective’ we mean selective for a specific reason. Usually nowadays it is understood to mean a pregnancy being terminated because of the sex of the fetus. In India for example this usually means the selecting out of the female fetus and the choosing of the male fetus to continue.

Both parts of this are important to recognize as selective choices but the discourse, politics, debates and publicity usually focusses only on the abortion which selects out the female fetus. It is this unbalanced approach that has led to the continued failure of various ‘rescue’ programmes as well as the increasing utilization of this as ammunition by the anti- choice groups.

By showing up one of the ‘choices’ as inherently immoral/ cruel/ unfair/ discriminatory, they hope to tar all abortions with the same brush. Choice is inherently a bad idea they seem to say because you ‘cannot trust women’ and ‘they will choose it all wrong’.

Translation: Women will choose things that society/ partriachy will not approve.

It is worth considering if there is ever any true choice? Most “choices” are a direct result of limitations arising from or expectation imposed by a range of conditions such as personal reasons, family reasons, economic reasons (e.g., potential jobs for women, lack of equal pay, lack of maternity benefits, the cost of education) or state policy (e.g., one-child or two-child family norms, military recruitment).

So why do we allow the discussion to focus on macro-level numbers (i.e., country-specific sex ratios) when we should really be addressing individual rights?

Does not the insistence on girl children being born push the burden on individuals while the there is no meaningful intervention taking place to eliminate the gender discrimination that leads individuals to make that choice in the first place?

The reality is that “choice” is not really exercised in a vacuum and the State can (and does) interfere with the reproductive freedom of individuals. If we want to ensure that women and couples do not choose to terminate a female fetus, we need to start addressing the reasons why the girl child is so unwanted.

We need to recognize that, like many other choices, this one is being made for the same economic reasons that drive so many others. A girl child is simply a financial liability in a patriarchal traditional culture that would not give that girl an equal opportunity in education, employment, earning capacity or support that would allow her to work after having children. Under this reality, the son basically operates as the old-age pension, social security and retirement plan rolled into one, and so the selection to have make children isn’t so much a “choice” after all.

Hence, long term strategies to address sex-selective abortion should address the lack of economic parity and gender equality first.

Ironically we find that the current rhetoric around the issue argues that– if girls are not born, how will the boys find brides?

It is appalling that such slogans have even been endorsed by government campaigns thus making it obvious that no one is making the link between sex determination as an expression of gender discrimination and the abysmal status of women.

Once again it bears repeating that those who find out it is a male fetus and choose to continue are also selectively choosing a reproductive outcome which is never penalized or even recognized as a selective act.

The entire issue of the sex ratio and the ‘imbalance’ is also something that is accepted at face value and never questioned. There are projections of violence against women, rape, polyandry – as though there is no exploitation and abuse in societies with a ‘good’ sex ratio! The underlying argument is also a bit of a threat – ‘If you don’t have more girl children, don’t blame us for what happens next. We warned you’.

We live in the same country that worships the Mother Goddesses, considers motherhood to be the highest attainable purpose of any woman’s life, where women are still being killed as witches[i], where dowry is illegal but still being given in different forms and where a woman can be Defence Minister as well as defenseless all at the same time.

It is worth noting that the British passed the Female Infanticide Prevention Act in 1870[ii] in India, a full 100 years before the MTP Act and 110 years before ultrasound machines were being used for sex determination.

All that technology has done is moved the active selection process earlier in the reproductive timeline. It has not created a demand for the male child that did not exist for thousands of years already. It did not create a secondary status for women and make them an economic burden. That was the socio-cultural complex along with the patriarchal constraints which make it difficult for girls to obtain equal education, equal job opportunities, paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work.

We know that selective abortions are also undertaken when the fetus is diagnosed with a disability. Those are usually considered as acceptable because the recognition that such a child would be a burden to its parents and they should be allowed to choose a better life for themselves.

Surely the same argument is valid for parents of a female child when the sex of the child makes her a liability, economically and socially and culturally due to the existing norms?

So do we work to eliminate the discrimination or ‘save’ the fetus?

This blogpost is extracted from an article written by the author for Catholics for Choice , Conscience magazine where it was published as ‘A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’. It has been slightly updated and modified for this version.

[1] Dr. Dalvie is Member of CommonHealth, Coordinator of Asia Safe Abortion Partnership and Board Member of INROADS