More on abortion – the female foeticide issue

Cross posted on The Hand Mirror

Another instalment in what will be three posts following up objections to my original post on abortion. I’m rather wimpily leaving the one on disabilities until the last, not because I’m not sure about what I want to say, but because I want to think a bit more about how to say it. Meanwhile, I want to tackle the issue of female foeticide.

I’m going to use the term ‘female foeticide’ to refer to the practice of aborting female fetuses because the parents would prefer to have a boy. The term is loaded; it carries connotations of ‘homicide’, and that carried connotations of moral wrongdoing. So I am, as it were, helping myself to some moral disapproval before I have even made a case for it. However, please accept it as shorthand for “the practice of aborting female fetuses because the parents would prefer to have a boy.”

Here’s the issue that was raised.

“But since Deborah has poked her head in, I’d love to get a feminist perspective on abortion being used to get rid of ‘useless’ and unwanted girls.” (Raised here.)

I want to unpack this a little, putting it in a form that I think may go beyond what the original questioner meant, but nevertheless a form that I think cuts to the heart of the question.

(1) Feminists support abortion on demand.
(2) Feminists decry the abortion of female fetuses.
(3) These two positions are inconsistent.

And therefore, feminists should either abandon (1), or abandon (2), or abandon feminism.

I do not think at all that my interlocutor was pushing this sort of position. Nevertheless, he was raising a serious point, viz, that at face value, there seems to be a serious issue for feminists who on the one hand support abortion on demand, but on the other, reject the abortion of female fetuses because the fetuses are one gender (female) rather than another.

As a feminist, I hold both (1) and (2), and I do not think these positions are inconsistent.

First, I do not think any individual abortion is inherently morally impermissible. That’s the conclusion I reached in my first post. And it’s one of the major reasons that I support (1). Very roughly, there are good reasons to support the availability of abortion on demand, such as this, and the increased autonomy for women (as I argued in my original post about 2/3 of the way through).

However in that original post, I also argued that we can make moral judgements about people who have serial abortions. Not because of each abortion per se, but because they care so little about taking care of themselves and taking care of the beginnings of life, that they are negligent. This is the moral error they fall into. As I said earlier:

it isn’t the actual abortion that is the problem; it is being flippant and casual about the beginnings and endings of life that matters.

I think we can make the same sort of judgement about female foeticide. Female fetuses are aborted in alarming numbers in some countries (notably India and China) because girls are not valued as highly as boys. In fact, girls are disvalued, and it is regarded as bad fortune to bear a daughter, and good fortune to bear a son. This is no doubt the case for cultural and financial reasons; in China, sons traditionally look after their parents, while daughters end up joining another family, and looking after the elderly people in that family, and in India, parents must pay heavy dowries when their daughters marry. Girls are a financial liability there. Other cultures have strong male preference too – see for example, Stef’s post about male preference in South Korea.

So the problem with female foeticide is not the abortions themselves, but the fact that they are brought about because girls and women are not valued, are thought to be lesser beings. The moral failing in the case of female foeticide is to do with the lesser valuation placed on women and girls. As for how to fix the problem? Danielle hits the nail on the head when she says:

If you’re functioning within a society in which women are consistently undervalued, then individual actions like sex-selection abortions do, as B says, end up having a societal cost – and a bias. If you change the ‘value’ of women, you change the abortion patterns. Easier said than done, of course.


6 responses to “More on abortion – the female foeticide issue

  1. I agree with you, and I would add something else to this, something you said in the original post:

    “It enables women to have autonomy over their bodies, to be in control of their own destinies, instead of being subject to the capricious whims of well, fate, in this one respect at least.”

    Even if proximate cause of aborting a particular female foetus is made by the individual woman who is carrying that foetus, with no obvious pressures from anyone around her (husband, doctors, family etc), the decision is made in the atmosphere of a society in which girls and women are not valued. (There’s also, possibly, a means-vs-ends argument to be made, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

    So a decision to abort a female foetus because it is female may not necessarily be a decision made in full autonomy. (Although that begs the question: which of us can escape the societal structure to which she belongs and make a truly autonomous choice?)

    It may not even be necessary to go so far: in a society where women are seen as of lesser value (and particularly if they are seen as belonging to men), it may be that either there is an immense amount of pressure placed on the woman involved OR that someone else makes the actual decision. If either of those things happens, there’s no autonomy of decision, and no conflict between (1) and (2) at all.

  2. you have a clever way of untangling the thoughts in my head so I think, ‘yes, that’s just what I was thinking’, only not so clearly

    middle of night and sleepless twin so incoherent, sorry.

  3. I do not think at all that my interlocutor was pushing this sort of position.

    Thanks for that Deborah. As a rule, I’m more interesting in finding out what people think than presuming to tell them the contents of their own minds. 🙂

  4. That’s basically been my thinking along the matter. That isn’t so much the choice but the climate the choice is being made in.

    Interestingly these days daughters are the latest fashion item in SoKo, you have an elder daughter to help look after the ‘little prince.’

  5. great post, Deborah. Thankfully, the right to abortion is more or less safe in India, so we don’t have as much of a debate on it; However, it is scary that people could try to use female foeticide as an excuse to campaign against abortion rights. As you’ve pointed out so well, the cause is the low status of women, not the available legal right to abort. Technically, knowing the gender is illegal – doctors and nursing homes of course flout this with impunity.

  6. I think you’re being too nice to that-there interlocutor. And taking them way too seriously.

    As a feminist, I am pushing for a world where babies would not be aborted ‘cos they’re female. Even with decisions about abortion being left up to the woman.

    Selective abortion in India the feminist’s fault? Oh bite yer bum. Next?!