Over 100,000 abortions take place each year in Canada, which, uniquely among Western democracies, has no law restricting access to the procedure. It is legal throughout pregnancy, although the vast majority of physicians will not carry it out after viability of the fetus (the time at which the fetus has a chance of living outside the womb, which the Canadian Medical Association sets at 20 weeks gestation), except for serious medical reasons. Other exceptions to the 20 week limit do, however, occur and are probably not uncommon.
All of which means that if a woman wants an abortion, whatever her reason for deciding that, she may have an abortion. And pro-choice advocates argue that that’s how it should be, as women have the right “to absolute reproductive freedom.” That means abortion is a private matter between a woman and her physician, just another medical decision; it’s nobody else’s business and certainly not society’s or the law’s; and the fetus is “just a bunch of cells,” part of the woman’s body not a separate being, a “parasite” she is entitled to get rid of.
Pro-choice advocates used to oppose sex-selection abortions, but some have changed their position because they do not want to endorse the legitimacy of any restriction on abortion. The absence of any restrictions not only makes abortion more accessible, it sends a message and establishes a cultural value that having an abortion is “no big deal,” as one woman expressed it, which is consistent with pro-choice ideology.
So why is there this huge fuss about sex-selection abortion? If one can have an abortion for any reason or none, why not because a baby of the opposite sex is strongly preferred?
The reason is, as sex-selection abortion most clearly demonstrates, that abortion is not just a private matter. The issue involves shared societal values, cultural norms and clashes of cultural values and shows that the cumulative impact of abortion has societal consequences.
Pro-choice advocates have long proposed that whether women can have unfettered access to abortion should be the litmus test of whether a society has respect for women and their rights. They argue this access is required to protect women’s rights to autonomy and self determination – and to protect their dignity. Ironically, however, sex-selection abortion is overwhelmingly the expression of a lack of respect for women in cultures in which sons are highly valued and daughters are massively devalued.
Sex-selection abortion also shifts the analytic, ethical and legal spotlight from the pregnant woman (who is the basis of the pro-choice case), to the unwanted fetus (which is normally ignored in the pro-choice analysis). This is because in sex selection, unlike probably most other abortions, the woman wants a baby — just not a girl. As a result of this focus on the fetus, we see abortion in a different ethical and legal light.
As is true in all ethical decision making, our choice of language in relation to abortion is also important, because it can affect our emotional response, which factors into how we see abortion’s ethical acceptability. Sex-selection abortions are often referred to as “female feticide” or “gendercide” – both emotionally evocative terms. But all abortions are feticide. Why don’t we refer to them as such?
And, cumulatively, abortion decisions have an impact on society and are not just a private matter. This is most clear in sex-selection abortion. It’s estimated that there are at least 100 million missing girls in India and China as a result of sex-selection abortion and female infanticide. In one Indian study in which 7,000 consecutive abortions were followed, 6,997 were of female fetuses. In some areas of China it’s reported there are 160 young men for every 100 young women. This is harmful to both sexes: Women are devalued, treated as objects, abused and harmed. And men cannot find wives.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial suggestion that the way to handle sex-selection abortion in Canada is to withhold information on the sex of the baby until 30 weeks gestation is neither feasible nor ethical. A baby’s sex can be determined at eight weeks of gestation with a blood sample from the mother and, in general, people have an ethical and legal right to know the information a physician generates about their condition.
Moreover, testing unborn children for sex is the tip of the prenatal testing iceberg. Tests for many other conditions are already available and more are coming fast. The issues are how may these be used and how should they not be used – and what law governing abortion should be put in place to ensure that the Canadian values we want to enshrine regarding these tests are respected? Much as some politicians, including the Prime Minister, protest against doing so, they must start discussing abortion in Parliament. It is an issue that affects some of the most important values on which we base our Canadian society. And it is not going away.
Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.