Defending sex-selective abortion

On January 16, the Canadian Medical Association published an editorial penned by their Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Rajendra Kale, “It’s a girl!” – could be a death sentence. The issue of sex-selective abortions was stirred to life with this bit of paternalism:

A pregnant woman being told the sex of the fetus at ultrasonography at a time when an unquestioned abortion is possible is the starting point of female feticide from a health care perspective. A woman has the right to medical information about herself that is available to a health care professional to provide advice and treatment. The sex of the fetus is medically irrelevant information (except when managing rare sex-linked illnesses) and does not affect care. Moreover, such information could in some instances facilitate female feticide. Therefore, doctors should be allowed to disclose this information only after about 30 weeks of pregnancy — in other words, when an unquestioned abortion is all but impossible.

I’m not sure how equality is served by a man deciding what information a male-dominated profession should allow women to have, but I do know that Dr. Kale has presented a solution to a problem that does not exist in Canada. There is no epidemic of “lost women” in Canada, nor is there any grand social unrest in the ethnic communities he damns as bastions of sexism.

No, this issue isn’t about sexism. It’s about abortion and tribalism. We have decided, roughly speaking, that abortion is okay. Canada has zero laws prohibiting abortion at any stage of pregnancy (though doctors tend not to perform late-term abortions other than for dire medical reasons).

People are concerned about pregnant women aborting little girls. They’re worried about lost women. So much so that some 60% want laws against sex-selective abortion (or maybe they’re just xenophobes). But this is all just about the yuck factor.

Legally, no girls are being aborted. No women are going missing. Women who are pregnant are receiving information from their doctors and deciding how they will (legally) act upon it. If girls and boys are ‘being aborted’, it is occurring whether or not anyone sees an ultrasound.  

Equality will not be achieved by passing insignificant laws that infantilize women.

Bonus link: National Post’s Chris Selley notes the hypocrisy when a near-identical matter is raised:

We know, for example, that Canadians travel to the United States to have sex-selective in-vitro fertilization. It has been reported that they tend to request female children. This strikes me as sex selection, plain and simple. But after I wrote about this last week, I was surprised to find that some Canadians draw a very definite line between sex selection (which is bad) and what’s called “family balancing”: That is, arranging to have a girl because you already have two boys, or vice versa. This can involve anything from pre-implantation gender determination to simply aborting a naturally conceived fetus of the unwanted gender.

The distinction doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, in my view. Sex selection isn’t inherently sexist or coercive (though of course it often is), and “family balancing” isn’t inherently free of those problems. There are perfectly rational economic reasons, abhorrent though they are, in many countries to prefer male offspring. In Canada, we properly see them as cultural relics. But if Dick and Jane of Kitsilano are going to be congratulated on the boy they engineered for themselves just because they wanted a boy, I don’t see what right we have to inquire as to Deepak and Sanjana’s motives. For all we know, neither couple’s motives are any more “cultural” than the other’s.

Bonus link II: David Warren goes there:

On other fronts, we find the whole range of “eugenic” issues raised by selective abortions; the horrible prospect of enabling people to do by “choice” what Hitler chose: to eliminate those groups he deemed to be “inferior.” To order “designer babies” for a new master race.

Well, at least we’ve got the Hitler comparison out of the way.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. You (or Chris Shelley, anyway) actually touch on something that goes very overlooked in this entire discussion. The right doesn’t like to talk about it because it makes them look like they have feminist cred. The left doesn’t like to talk about it because it runs against common narratives that girls would be favored over boys.

    But in the United States and Canada, it is not at all clear that sex selection would be aimed at girls. Maybe in some immigrant communities this would be the case, but it’s an unproven assumption that it would be in the overall.

  2. It’s one thing to say that abortion ought to be allowed for whatever reason the host decides to terminate whatever parasites she’s carrying through no fault of her own but that doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to have any opinion on abortion at all, ever, no matter what.

    If someone says “I’d like to get an abortion because I found out that the baby’s father is 1/32 Cherokee… 14 words!!!”, we’re allowed to disapprove of that.

    If someone says “I’d like to get an abortion because I found out that the baby is likely to be homosexual”, we’re allowed to disapprove of that.

    If someone says “I’d like to get an abortion because I see children as pokemon and I already have one of this kind already”, we’re allowed to disapprove of that too.

    Are we allowed to *PREVENT* it? Of course not. That would be wrong and overwhelmingly likely to have worse outcomes than what we’re trying to prevent.

    Disapproval? That’s something that is still allowed to us.

    • I agree with this, to a degree. Really, though, I am hard-pressed to say that aborting due to gender is particularly worse than other rationales.

      I disapprove of a vast majority of abortions, though (with a heavy heart) believe they should remain legal. But even on a strictly moral level, I have trouble singling this out absent a socially problematic gender skew (which, of course, applies to gender selection with IVF, as well as gender-selected international adoption).

      • I think it raises my hackles because it betrays an attitude far closer to “I want a human accessory” than to “I want to exercise the responsibility of raising a moral agent to adulthood.”

        • Fair point. At the same time*, I read an article about women who really wanted girls and got boys. I’m not saying it would be better for the boys if the boys had been aborted, but it might just be worse than “I can’t afford this…”**

          * – I’d supply a link if I could find it. I *really* wish I could. It is elemental to any sex-selection discussion.

          ** – Worse, I think, than my mother had it as the girl who was supposed to be a boy (was given a boy’s name).

  3. While I’m not so sure this is a defense of gender-selective abortions as it is pointing out that there really isn’t a problem of such things happening (at least in Canada), the last point from David Warren goes somewhere else: while we may not have the ability to do so yet, the somewhat sterile and polarized social future described in Gattaca and A Brave New World seems to be a very real possibility — and the step beyond a genetic-driven caste system is a parent making a compassionate decision to abort a child whose pre-natal genetic profile indicates he or she is destined for a life in one of the lower castes.

  4. I may respond more tomorrow, but I just want to say that this is just about the most level-headed discussion on abortion I have ever read. Thanks, guys.

  5. There are places where no male child has been born in the past twenty years. This is not because of abortion, but pollution, most likely.
    Even in america, the sex balance is shifting.

    Don’t really know how that adds anything to this discussion, but I figured it was worth pointing out.

    There are times when sex selection can at least be seen as a moral “okay.” I don’t even have to stretch to find them. A victim of brother-sister incest might very well want single sex babies (of either sex.) I don’t find that morally abhorrent.

  6. Out of curiousity, are these policies less objectionable if they were handed down by panel made up entirely of women? Everytime someone talks about abortion, it seems an inordinate amount of energy goes into the “who” is making the decisions/ rules/ policies, rather than “what” those rules are, as though having a woman decide that sex-selective abortions being restricted would make the concept more palatable.

    And if having a woman decide these things does not make it more acceptable, then why bring up the gender of the policy maker in the first place?

    • That’s a good point, Teacher.

      The reason I bring up the sex of Dr. Kale is because he is claiming that his argument is based on fighting sexism. A man arguing that he should be able to make decisions for women in order to create a more just world for those women is rather absurd.

      • But a woman making that argument is any less?

        Or am I just being obtuse in seeing that whole line of reasoning as absurdly sexist all by itself? Why does the gender of the policy maker decide if the policy is sexist?

        • A woman or a man making such an argument would be sexist, sure.

          A woman making such an argument would be (metaphorically) paternalistic.

          A man making such an argument is hypocritical. That was the type of absurdity I was commenting on.

          • I get why a man making that argument adds a degree of presumptuousness to the paternalism, and that’s a layer of problematic, but I don’t think “hypocritical” is the right word. That suggests that the doc thinks it’s a-ok for himself to abort a fetus (or something comparable) for gender selection purposes (or something comparable).

          • In subsequent interviews (if not the editorial itself), Dr. Kale argues that women in certain communities aren’t choosing to have an abortion, but are being forced to have an abortion by their husbands. If he’s making the choice regarding a woman will have an abortion or not (and, effectively, that’s the point of his proposal), then arguing you’re doing it because men shouldn’t make that choice for women is a little… err… conflicted.

            I’ll try to dig up link to the interview.

  7. I think white women in the USA are selecting for girls and aborting their boys in large numbers. I see a lot more girls than boys on the playing fields and playgrounds in the white neighborhoods here in Sacramento. I’ve lived here 10 years and only once has any women I know or know of had a baby boy. It’s not natural.They’re selecting for girls (and being real quiet about it). This is just my observation, of course. I hope I’m wrong, but I see one playground after another overwhelmingly female– where are the boys?

    • 1) more girls than boys are born. (even in places where abortion does not exist.)
      2) this demographic trend has been increasing.
      3) sex selection is something fairly easy to distort via timing sexual intercourse. (male sperm are lighter and swim faster, but are less hardy).
      4) developmental issues are more common in boys.

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