Why women have a right to sex-selective abortion

By Sarah Ditum/ The Guardian Updated at 2013-09-19 20:32:49 +0000


As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter why any woman wants to end her pregnancy. If it's to select for sex, that's her choice.

When you talk about being pro-choice, sex selective abortion is often slung at you as the triumphant gotcha. "You love women so much you want them to be in charge of what grows inside their bodies, but what about the women who are aborted, have a go at answering that? ZING!"

The answer is actually remarkably simple, and it's this: it doesn't matter whether what's growing inside you is liable to end up as a man or a woman. What matters is whether the person it's growing inside – the person who is going to have to deliver the resulting baby, at not inconsiderable personal peril – actually wants to be pregnant and give birth to this child. In a world where it's possible to end a pregnancy safely and legally, it seems like rank brutality to force anyone to carry to term against her will.

And as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter why any woman wants to end her pregnancy. As the conscious and legally competent entity in the conception set-up, it's the woman's say that counts, and even the most terrible reason for having an abortion holds more sway than the best imaginable reason for compelling a woman to carry to term.

In this, I probably sound like a radical. Perhaps more of a radical than Ann Furedi of BPAS, who has won outraged headlines simply by saying that abortion on the grounds of sex selection may be within the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act – which, on a scrupulous reading of the act, it may well be. The act doesn't lay out foetal sex explicitly as a grounds for abortion, but as Furedi points out, it also doesn't lay out rape, incest, poverty, relationship breakdown or being underage as legal grounds for abortion. All those things are nevertheless accepted as legitimate causes for termination.

What the act does say is that an abortion is legal when two doctors agree that "the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, to the physical or mental health of the woman or any existing children of her family". And that rubric is reasonably understood to comprehend the risks of continuing a pregnancy resulting from rape, from incest, one that would extend a woman beyond her means to support a child, or one that would stop her from completing her education and establishing herself as an independent adult.

What's the difference with sex selection? The most obvious objection is that it doesn't matter what sex a baby is: the UK is an equal society, or at least a society that pretends to equality, and no prospective parent has any reason to prefer a son over a daughter or vice versa. And this is true. It's so true that there is no demographic evidence of women practising sex selective abortion in Britain: this whole scandal is based on a totally fictive set-up.

But what about when a pregnant woman lives in a society that gives her real and considerable reason to fear having a girl? The kind of society where dowry systems mean an inconveniently gendered child could bankrupt a family, or one where a livid patriarch deprived of a male heir could turn his fury on both mother and daughter? In those situations, a woman wouldn't just be justified in seeking sex selective abortion; she'd be thoroughly rational to do so.

Ultimately, if you believe strongly that girls have as much right to be born as boys, then you should also believe that women have the right to decide what happens within the bounds of their own bodies. Sex-selective abortion is a negligible issue in Britain. In the countries where it is a serious concern, it's a symptom of brute misogyny. And the answer to such misogyny is never to deny women power over their own bodies.