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Is gender selection wrong?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 10, 2012

An editorial in a major Canadian journal urges doctors to conceal the gender of a fetus from all pregnant women until 30 weeks to prevent sex-selective abortion by Asian immigrants.

“Female infanticide happens in India and China by the millions, but it also happens in North America in numbers large enough to distort the male to female ratio in some ethnic groups,” said the editorial by interim editor-in-chief Rajendra Kale.
The article published int he Canadian Medical Association Journal cites US census data from 2000 that shows male-biased sex ratios among US-born children of Asian parents, and a study of 65 Indian women in the US from 2004-2009 that showed 89 percent of them terminated pregnancies with female fetuses. That strikes me as an extremely small sample size, I mean how many “Asian” women got pregnant between 2004 till 2009…millions I suspect; 65 people seems easily prone to ‘outlier’ effect. But, that is not important to this post. I am more interesting in the general question – is gender selection wrong?

Canada in 2004 outlawed fertility practices that would increase the likelihood that an embryo will be a certain sex, or that would identify an in-vitro embryo by sex for any reason other than to diagnose a sex-linked disorder or disease Kale said the Canadian medical establishment needs to go further, and make express rulings that would ban fetal sex disclosure before seven months, when it is too late for an abortion.

Alexia Conradi, head of the pro-choice Women’s Federation of Quebec, agreed that abortive sex-selection is “unacceptable,” but questioned the motivation of those who support formal measures to prevent it.
“Any types of restrictions on abortion are met with skepticism by the pro-choice community generally,” she said. “A more appropriate intervention with sex-selection is to do more education, especially if we are talking about son preference, rather than seek to limit women’s choices or access to information.”

Okay, I understand that pro-choice people would be suspicion of any attempt to limit abortion; but the fact remains abortion IS legal in this country…more specifically, it is seen as a medical condition and a matter between patient and doctor.

So, my question is; if abortion is legal then why is gender selection wrong. I grant there is a ‘smell-test’ failure here; I feel it’s wrong but I fail to see the stronger argument why? Some will argue it is discriminatory against women. And that would be true if it’s a ‘post-birth’ child; however the argument that justifies abortion is that although we may say a fetus is a potential person it is NOT actually a person…so the argument saying it is discrimination against women seems to fail because in the say way it is NOT actually a women.

Now some have argued that although technically it’s not a ‘crime’ against the female fetus instead the practice propagates in society a devaluing of women in general…that if female fetus’ were deemed disposable that mentality will pollute the general culture and women (real women) will be devalued. That it is the secondary effect that must be prevented and thus limiting women’s right to choose…their right to even know the gender…should be abridged.

I am also uncomfortable with the fact that this seems close to legislating morality. We atheist often criticize and condemn the religious types for trying to legislate morality (such as banning same-sex marriage) but how is this different? One could argue that its like racism or the civil rights movement of the 60’s; but gender selection is not a major issue in Canada as a whole and the law would apply to everyone. Racism was (and still is) a institutional and ingrained aspect of our society requiring legislation of morality because it was so lacking in the society…I don’t see the parallel, maybe its appropriate for India or China where these are systemic and major issues.

If we accept this legislation, it will of course have secondary effects. We are saying that women cannot be trusted with this power over their own bodies…does this not also devalue women? I am unsure where I stand on this. I accept it has a bad smell to it and yet i think I cannot morally or logically say I think gender selection, in itself, is wrong although I trust myself not to fall into the traditional conservative mentality that would make me wish to abort a daughter and would advise my friend likewise.

Your thoughts?


6 Responses to “Is gender selection wrong?”

  1. Ian said

    Massimo Pigluicci and Michael de Dora have a great article (forget the link, check their blog) that argues that we do, and should, legislate morality. Morality gives the direction, the why, to evidence based policy. We shouldn’t shy away from this, but argue that our (humanist) morality is better – more universal, rational, and secular – than the Romney or Santorum morality.

    • I don’t know if we are talking about the same thing and that is often the problem with philosophy. When the religious, conservative, or traditionalist use the word morality they mean metaphysically right…the ‘ought’ vs. the ‘is’. What is moral is ALWAYS moral; it transcends time and space. Moral is the word of god and is immutable. The article you referenced I think believes in this kind of morality…be it based on libertarian dogma not Christian. Something is moral irrespective of reality or the way things are.

      Although the original meaning of ‘moralis’ simply meant ‘proper custom’; centuries of Christian influence and indoctrination (irrevocably) alter it to ‘right, good and virtuous!’

      I don’t believe in morality as such but ethics; that we should make laws that are consistent with empirical evidence…rational thinking…what I could call ethical thinking. I don’t mean to make a cheap sleight of hand changing what we often think of as the same word. I think ethical thinking is a method like the scientific method; it is not an answer but a method to derive answers. Ethical thinking, at least as a ‘good’ skeptic would apply it, should not be dogmatic, can evolved over time and point to truth but never claim to be it.

      Here’s an example. When based in morality, we are stuck saying “pot smoking is immoral” forever because something is ether moral or not…there is not kinda moral. By using the “M” word, you create dogmatic law. Ethical thinking gets around this dilemma because its outcomes are not moral but the best answers so far…like science. So we can say in 1980 “pot smoking causes major harm to individuals and society” and yet as more research provides evidence it (may) not be harmful you; we can alter our law/statement “pot smoking causes little harm to self or state” without being inconstant or contradictory.

      The article you pointed to though shows why we should not think in terms of morality because we are too culturally indoctrinated to think of this dogmatically. The article states “we don’t limit or take away the right to free speech just because a person’s exercise of that right led to deaths”, that is unethical because it ignores hate speech (for example). I can say unethical, because he is dogmatic in his views of rights thus not willing to change based on evidence. Anything asserted is dogmatic and innately unethical. The author praises Obama’s book “The audacity of hope” for saying “I propose that most law, either in spirit or letter, is nothing but encoded morality”; one must ask whose morality?

      That is the heart of my criticism. Morality is, at least in our modern context, dogmatic; dogmatism (be it theological, political or skeptical) is innately wrong…regardless of the good it may incidentally do. Using the term morality, this necessarily must appeal to “belief” and the metaphysical, creating a field of competing equals. A Christian belief in ‘right or wrong’ based on the bible is no less sound than one based on the philosophy of ‘inalienable rights’; yet both may be invalid because they are assertions of belief not discovered knowledge.

      So do I think law can make society better – yes; do I think we should use law to modify people’s behaviour to make society better – yes, but cautiously; do I think I should impose my moral belief on others through law – no, no matter how right I might think they are or how much incidental good they may do. What I would do is approach law like I do everything else; use the tool kit of skepticism (evidence, logic, reason and the scientific method) to create law ethically.

      Note: In philosophy a sound argument must be true IF its premises are true. A valid argument is a sound argument whose premises ARE true.

  2. Ethan directed me to re-post my comments here, so BAM! I’m spamming you.

    It just seems to me, having seen this issue fly past on the front cover of a Maclean’s magazine in the most racially insensitive possible terms a couple years ago, that the laws need to change if a woman can’t access an abortion and is forced to go to a life-endangering black market to get it. A doctor may not agree with her reasons, but what right does anyone have to put her in harm’s way instead of having a conversation about it while discussing informed consent and risks and alternatives?

    Furthermore, it just seems to me that allowing someone to weigh the life-altering risks of abortion with their desire for a life with an intact child regardless of the SEX of that child (who knows, they could be transgender too, right?) is of higher priority than infantilizing mothers (with special emphasis given to Asian immigrant mothers).

    After all, 89% of 65 women works out to 58 mothers who elected for an abortion when they found out their unborn baby was of the female sex. That’s over four years’ time? Wtf is wrong with this country when that is seen as a threat to the integrity of sex selection? Does the CMA even understand why an immigrant would want their firstborn to be a boy?

    (I’m not really spamming you. That was all I said.)

  3. savedaughters19 said

    It is estimated that about 50 million girls have gone missing. They are aborted based on their sex. India has passed laws 18 years ago making it illegal for a medical practitioner to reveal the sex of an unborn baby. This law is rarely implemented because most of the government officials and judiciary are apathetic to this epidemic. This has caused the sex ratios to be extremely skewed in certain parts of India.

    Please read the following articles and the story of one lone woman, Dr Mitu Khurana, who has bought a case against the hospital, her husband and in- laws, who illegally found out the sex of her unborn twin baby girls and then tried to force her to have an abortion. She has been given the run around for four long years by the Indian judicial system.

    Can anyone give a voice to the 50 million girls that have been silenced forever? All Dr. Khurana is asking for is a chance to go before an unbiased judge and be heard. Can anyone give a voice to the 50 million murdered and raise the question with Indian officials as to why they are silently witnessing the elimination of a whole generation. The silence of the Indian officials tell the story and makes us wonder if Dr. Khurana and the 50 million dead baby girls will ever see justice done.

    • I don’t think you are arguing for or against what I have said. Just to make my stance clear. My point was that the argument for abortion (i.e. potential person is not actually a person, so not ‘murder’) works for those who DO wish to gender select (i.e. a potential female is not actually a female, so not discriminatory). I also think that the prevalence of it in Canada is very small; actually Stats Can show gender inequality favouring females (2006 men/women = 95.9/100). Lastly, I also questioned if legislation (vs. education) was necessary in Canada, and I am not convinced that it passes the Oakes test set by the Supreme Court.

      I do think in some parts of the world, gender selection is a problem, and that legislation is warranted (maybe). As mentioned on the show, in parts of the world, gender-selection leads to the devaluation and discrimination of ‘born’ women.

      Now, even if there is legislation, most people know that can mean very little to the lives of real people. In many countries laws on the books are seldom enforced thus creating technical protection while actually delivering no protection at all. This is evident in environmental laws in (re)emerging nations, Financial and corporate law in emerged nations and sadly gender-selection laws in China and India. This goes to the point though that not only legislation is needed (in some countries); the real victory will only be achieved via education (in all countries). That what need to change is not law but culture.

      Of course having said this, am I perpetuating the ‘superiority’ of Canadian women? If women have reproductive rights here in Canada, how can I deny them to some women in India their own freedom and right of self-determination? Might not legislation which would really only be applicable to Indian and Chinese women (mainly immigrants at that), wound it not be discriminatory?

      Oakes Test:

      Stats Can:

  4. […] […]

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