Have Abortion Rights Led to a World of Missing Women?

A woman’s right to safe, legal abortion has created a world of missing women, according to the most recent anti-choice talking points.

A new book by Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men reports that in the natural scheme of things, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. But those numbers are skewed in many countries: In India 112 boys are born per 100 girls, in China 121, in Azerbaijan 115, in Georgia 118 and in Armenia 120.

Hvistendahl does not blame the right to chose. But others do. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard (writing a book review for the Wall Street Journal) look at this study and blame abortion rights. Feminists cannot be consistent advocating the right to choose while criticizing sex-selective abortion at the same time, they say. In their view, abortion must be restricted in order to save the world’s girls and women and regain the natural sex ratio.

But the right to choose is not the problem. The core culprit lies in valuing male children over female. When girls are esteemed as much as boys, parents will no longer seek to have sons and not daughters.

Douthat wrongly claims that patriarchy isn’t the core problem. He sees women’s empowerment as leading to more sex selection, not less, with many women using their increased autonomy to choose sons. Somehow he fails to see that patriarchy lies behind the phenomenon. Strange, since his next sentence admits that sex selection occurs “because male offspring bring higher social status.”

Unfortunately, patriarchy becomes embedded in women’s and men’s minds alike. If males are more valued in a society, women unconsciously pick that up at a young age. Or they may ask their parents, who are likely to reinforce the status quo. Is it any surprise, then, that so many women choose sons over daughters, hoping to increase their own worth?

Meanwhile, the proposed remedy of abortion restriction would only devalue women further.

Another recent New York Times article introduces us to Danielle Deaver of Nebraska, a state which restricts abortion after 20 weeks. She was devastated when her water broke at 22 weeks, leaving her fetus little chance of survival. She risked serious infection without induced labor, but that wasn’t allowed under the new law. She had to wait another 10 stressful days until she went into natural labor. The baby only survived 15 minutes, while Deaver developed an infection. Angered, she said, “This should have been a private decision, made between me, my husband and my doctor.”

Last year, there was another even more horrifying instance of how restrictive, moralistic abortion policies impact women’s lives. In this case, a Polish woman named Edyta died because doctors felt that treating her colon condition could lead to miscarriage or force an abortion. As writer Brittany Shoot explained,

Poland is one of several countries (along with Italy, Hungary and Croatia) in which doctors, not unlike pharmacists in the U.S., can refuse to treat someone on moral grounds.

Do these restrictions really value women? Or do we become disposable nothings whose bodies, hearts and minds don’t really matter?

Despite what Douthat and Last say, feminists are consistent in being pro-choice while criticizing sex-selective abortion. We must get at the root of the world’s missing women–the devaluation of women–and not try to remedy it with a “cure” that exacerbates the core problem.

I originally wrote this piece for the Ms. Magazine Blog. It appeared June 29, 2011

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 8, 2011, in feminism, gender, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I honestly hate the idea of abortion, but above all I believe a woman should have the choice of being pregnant or not. No one else should be able to determine if something the mother needs should be done or not because it may injure the baby or cause the mother needs an abortion. If they are worried about the baby dying and not treating the mother and the mother dies in child birth, what is really solved? A life is lost either way, or the mother will not be able to provide for their new born. I think those who are pro-life need to seriously think out all the problems that come with trying to make sure a fetus can be delivered. They seem to only think of the child’s birth and nothing else. Also, I find it stupid to abort one gender of child because it was not the one desired. How can a mother, give up a daughter because she wants a boy. Obviously her parents thought more of her or she wouldn’t be alive. It’s sad that people come to these drastic conclusions.

  2. Your article is right on! We need to stop the carnage of female mass murder and at the same time support a woman’s right to choose. A woman who chooses to abort a baby daughter and try for a son instead skews what it means for a woman to have the right to safe and legal abortion. Safe and legal abortion is critical because it is women who are the primary caregivers of children during the first years of life – from conception through infancy. It would be rare for an infant to survive with only a male to care for it in the natural world. Men cannot produce a baby nor can they produce breast milk and so the infant would likely die (without formula or a surrogate mother). The health of the mother and all circumstances surrounding the pregnancy must therefore be taken into consideration with the decision being her’s to make. You simply cannot compare a healthy, financially stable pregnant woman, in a caring relationship who chooses to use her right to abortion in favor of a an attempt to conceive a male child rather than the female she currently carries because of traditional norms — with a 13 year old teenager who is a victim of a rape crime and finds herself pregnant, with no way to support herself financially or psychologically and chooses to use her right to abortion to save the child and herself (and one could easily argue society as well) from a life of probable/likely despair. You simply cannot blanket the issue. Indeed, as you mention, the deeper issue is clearly not being addressed. The saddening deeper issue is highlighted by the Afghan saying: Woman are made for homes or graves.

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