Is Banning Abortion the Answer to Sex-Selective Practices? (Hint: No.)

As proponents for reproductive justice, we advocate for access to the resources people need to thrive and to decide whether, when, and how to have and parent children with dignity, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. What happens, however, when we don’t agree with the decisions other people are making?

Maria Hvistendah discusses the large gender imbalance occurring in certain parts of the world due to sex-selective abortion in her new book, “Unnatural Selection.” In places such as China and India, cultures with a strong son preference, many couples are partaking in sex selection abortion to terminate pregnancies when they find out the fetus is female. This practice skews the gender ratio so that by 2020, there will be about 45 million more men than women in the world. This gender imbalance significantly impacts culture and society, not only because it sends a clear message that women are less valuable to society than men, but because it fuels other practices like the selling of women from rural areas for marriage and even sex trafficking.

Jonathan Last’s Wall Street Journal article, “War Against Girls,” suggests that we can do one of two things to combat this problem – restrict abortion or live with the consequences. Not surprisingly, many anti-abortion groups embrace this idea. Are women “abusing” their right to have an abortion? Or is society forcing women into the practice of sex-selective abortion? This is a complex issue that goes beyond “abortion rights,” and is a result of cultural pressures, continued sex discrimination, and societal policies that need to be addressed.

Government programs like China’s “One Child” policy, coupled with the strong tradition of son preference linked with status, undoubtedly plays a role in this behavior. More importantly, at the core of the problem lies sexism and gender inequality. Gender discrimination shapes the life experience of millions of women and girls around the world. Along with cultural expectations about gender roles, women may not want daughters because they understand how difficult it is to be a woman. China has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, particularly among women. Coercion and violence are also factors to consider in some communities, as women who are not pregnant with sons may be coerced into using sex selective abortion or subjected to domestic and intimate partner violence. Banning abortion is not the simple answer to this complex problem. Prohibiting abortion will not stop women from aborting female fetuses. Instead, infanticide rates may rise and it will result in pushing the procedure underground, which will significantly affect access, health and safety of the procedure.

As more right wing anti-abortion groups are using sex selective practices to fuel legislation to restrict abortion in the U.S., reproductive justice activists must develop a coherent way to address this issue. Skewed gender ratios pose a significant detriment to society. However, reducing the desire for sex selection requires structural and societal change, not a ban on abortions.

Christine Poquiz
LSRJ Legal Intern
3L, UC Davis School of Law