Mallika Kaur is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia. Her work on sex-selective abortions include, “Finding Instructions from Punjab’s ‘Missing Girls’ — Towards a Global Feminist Perspective on ‘Choice’ in Abortion.”
I have followed the recent debate and demise of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) as a woman but also as a U.S. citizen, an attorney, a South Asian from a part of the world where gender ratios are drastically warped, and as someone who has worked with women who have undergone sex-selective abortions. I have waited for some part of the debate to represent the women who are most affected by such abortions as well as the potential criminalization of their actions.
I am still waiting.
Sex-selective abortions are curiously unifying because both the antiabortion and abortion-rights camps often miss the point. Our nation also lost a teaching moment throughout this debate. The Republicans who introduced the bill did not pass up the opportunity to score easy political points by painting their opponents as opportunistic abortion supporters, devoid of moral considerations. Thus they reinforced the problem of sex selection worldwide: It receives much noise but little thought.
Those opposing PRENDA largely explained it as a barely veiled attempt to further limit the right to abortion by trumping up a problem that is largely non-existent in the United States. Proponents of the bill — those thinking beyond strategizing the end of legal abortion altogether — expressed dismay as to why anyone would think twice about criminalizing and ending such patent sex discrimination.
Few voiced the point that sex-selective abortions are a symptom of a larger problem: that girls are devalued because of societal norms and pressures. Many women and men earnestly fail to see the possibility of raising a daughter who can proudly carry the family name, support her parents in old age without ridicule, and live without fear of violence against her body and the associated pain and shame for her family.
Sex selection is portrayed as an “exotic” issue, even though we see the differentiated (or “specialized,” as our multi-billion dollar maternity and baby products industry would prefer) attention to baby boys and girls across U.S. society — the “tougher” mechanical toys for boys, the frills for girls; the early career suggestions subtly impressed on the young. These differences are exacerbated in some cultural contexts, where a family is “not complete” without a son and, worse, socially and economically insecure.
For women whose friends and relatives push sex-selective abortions, the debate around PRENDA was both deficient and disempowering. They heard either that their problem is not real, since it is faced only by a small fraction of a minority, or that they were unimaginably cruel, requiring punishment. The real solution lies in restructuring gender roles generally, but these women heard a demonization of their cultures specifically.
The mishandling of the debate over sex-selective abortions illustrates how deeply entrenched Americans have become in the binary: for or against “choice.” The understanding that this may be a false binary is all the more unpalatable during an election year. Yet the unfortunate reality is that neither those for or against abortion rights can quite contend with sex-selective abortions.
The “pro-choice” approach affords two possible reactions: Support women who choose sex-selective abortion, even if motivated by patriarchy, or suggest, patronizingly, that cultural considerations prevent “Third World” women from exercising meaningful individual choice. Other responses are compromised by the fear that the hard-won “right to choose” has enough detractors without feminists themselves questioning its appropriateness.
The difficulty of applying “choice” to sex-selective abortions provides ammunition to antiabortion activists, who argue that sex selection is yet another ugly aspect of abortion. These commentators, giddy at finding a fault line in the “choice” argument, say: If there were no abortion, there would be no sex-selective abortion. This simplistic line ignores the reality for pretty much any woman who undergoes such a procedure.
Sex-selective abortions, and perhaps abortion more generally, cannot be intelligently debated within a binary framework that constricts thinking. And criminalization, regulation and decriminalization are all inadequate responses to sex selection. Criminalization punishes women, who are victims of a double bind; it threatens women’s health by pushing them to illegal providers; and it harbors the danger of encouraging practices such as infanticide (as noted in India). Regulation could also endanger women’s health by limiting access to important information, threatening doctor-patient confidentiality and opening women to harassment. Active decriminalization of sex-selective abortions validates society’s prejudice against female children and fails to provide legal protection to those women who might be coerced into sex-selective abortions by their families. It is imperative to consider non-legal avenues that address sex selection.
Women, and their men, must be supported in bringing about societal change, in distinguishing true cultural heritage from patriarchy shrouded by the cultural argument. Advocates, whether motivated by pro- or anti-choice convictions, should support attacks on all forms of patriarchy, instead of simply locking horns with sex selection. Without assuring women security, honor and prestige regardless of the choice (son or daughter) they make, any law or campaign attacking sex selection will be unsuccessful — but also ineffective and unfair.