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It’s not surprising that anti-abortion activists see sex-selective abortion as their trump card. The issue puts feminists in a particularly difficult spot, turning reproductive choice into a tool of misogyny. Reporting on sex-selective abortion in India, where feminists campaign against kanya bhronn hatya—literally, “the killing of young girls”—and patriarchs angrily assert their right to plan their families, I sometimes felt like I’d stepped through a looking glass. Clearly, the American anti-abortion movement would be happy to frame the debate in similar terms.
That’s exactly what activists now are trying to do. On Tuesday, the day before the House debated a bill to ban sex-selective abortions, the anti-abortion group Live Action released a video titled “Gendercide: Sex Selection in America,” shot undercover at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin. (It is apparently Part 1 in a series.) The idea is to paint abortion clinics as aggressors in the war on women and thus limit abortion rights on ostensibly feminist grounds.
Live Action’s MO is to send operatives into Planned Parenthood clinics with hidden cameras and stories meant to put staffers in morally compromising positions. In this case, the activist poses as a pregnant woman who wants to abort if she’s carrying a girl. Her interaction with a Planned Parenthood employee named Rebecca is disturbing, particularly as edited in the Gendercide video. Planned Parenthood, rightly, does not turn women away because it objects to their reasons for seeking abortion, but Rebecca still seems rather too encouraging, ending their encounter with a chipper, “Good luck, and I hope you do get your boy!” (Rebecca was fired shortly after the video was shot in April.)
None of this, though, proves that Planned Parenthood is complicit in “gendercide.”
To its credit, Live Action also has posted a seemingly unedited version of the video on its website protectourgirls.com, which complicates the picture a little bit, even if it doesn’t change the central dynamic. In the longer video, the operative says she and her husband want two children, a boy and a girl, and that they already have a girl. Because the issue is family balance rather than misogyny, there would be no point in Rebecca trying to convince her of the value of daughters. Similarly, in the longer video, Rebecca clearly tells the woman that Planned Parenthood doesn’t do sex determination ultrasounds but that she shouldn’t have trouble finding a place that does.
The operative repeatedly expresses her fear of being judged and at one point even asks how she can rationalize her decision to disapproving friends. Rather than offering a defense of sex selection, Rebecca gives her a list of counselors who, she says, “might give you better choices, and words, in terms of your decision.” Rebecca probably should have pushed counseling more insistently and found a way to show understanding without approval. But it is not the job of anyone at Planned Parenthood to talk women out of their choices, even if those choices seem callous.
Nevertheless, Live Action’s video will likely be a potent weapon in the ongoing effort to discredit Planned Parenthood and undermine abortion rights. It can’t be a coincidence that the video came out just as the House took up the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act, which would imprison doctors who perform sex-selective abortions and force them to report women they suspect of seeking such terminations. That act would represent a major change in federal law, which does not currently give the government a say in whether a woman’s reasons for having an abortion are valid.
Sex-selective abortion is odious. Banning it means allowing the government to decide what constitutes a legitimate reason for a woman to terminate a pregnancy.
In the end, the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act will probably fail. It’s being brought to a vote under a suspension of House rules, which means it needs a two-thirds majority to pass on Thursday. It’s a maneuver that allows Republicans to raise the issue without being held accountable for trying to change the law. Things are different at the state level, though; Illinois, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Pennsylvania already prohibit sex-selective abortion, and other states are likely to join them.
One might fairly ask, of course, what’s wrong with that. Worldwide, after all, sex-selective abortion is a serious problem. Live Action’s video begins by proclaiming that, globally, 100,000,000 women are missing because of infanticide and abortion. This is a distortion, but the reality is still troubling.
Live Action’s figure comes from work by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who estimates that the world has 100,000,000 fewer women than it should because of a whole host of disparities in “health, medicine, and nutrition.” Female infanticide and sex-selective abortion are part of a much larger problem. Still, there’s no question that sex-selective abortion is leading to a crisis in much of Asia, creating societies with lopsided gender ratios that in turn lead to greater sexual violence and the potential for serious instability. I’ve been to districts in northern India with fewer than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. Not only does this signal a terrifying devaluation of women, it exacerbates the issue.
Crude economic logic might suggest that a shortage of women would raise their social worth. In fact, it tends to increase sex trafficking and to push women to marry younger. Meanwhile, a surplus of unmarriageable young men can be seriously destabilizing. As the political scientists Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer write in their book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population, societies where men outnumber women “breed chronic violence and persistent social disorder and corruption.”
None of this, however, applies to the United States. There is some evidence of sex selection among Asian immigrants in this country, though it’s unclear whether that is happening through abortion or IVF. Overall, through, our sex ratios are normal. An extremely rare phenomenon is thus being used in an effort to set a far-reaching precedent. Sex-selective abortion is odious. Banning it means allowing the government to decide what constitutes a legitimate reason for a woman to terminate a pregnancy, and forcing doctors to try to discern the motives of their patients.
South Korea is the one country in the world where there’s been genuine progress in reducing the incidence of sex-selective abortion. It didn’t happen through an abortion ban—abortion in that country has long been illegal, though widely available. What changed is that women’s status improved and archaic traditions started to lose their power. In most Asian countries, there’s a temporary correlation between increased wealth and education and sex selection, because privileged people have the most access to the relevant technology. But as South Korea shows, eventually, social change catches up.
“Avenues opened up for obtaining livelihoods and social status which were independent of lineage membership and adherence to familial expectations,” wrote Woojin Chung and Monica Das Gupta in a 2007 paper for the World Bank that sought to explain why sex ratios in South Korea were improving. “The accompanying urbanization resulted in people no longer being surrounded by patrilineal kin in their place of residence and work. This also opened up a possibility for relationships between parents and their children to be driven by affect rather than by rigid rules of gender and birth order. All these changes helped undercut the bases for son preference.”
The lesson is clear. Anyone who is genuinely concerned about sex-selective abortion should be working to fight sexism, its underlying cause. Laws that seek to limit women’s autonomy and confine them to traditional roles have it precisely backward. Unless, of course, limiting women’s autonomy and confining them to traditional roles has been the goal all along.
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