Sex-Selection Detection & Protection: Abortion for Gender-Selection Rears its Head

Inexpensive, over the counter gender tests are a back in the news and the stage is set for the next firestorm over abortion policy. Regular mothers will soon have the ability to tell boys from girls at an incredibly early stage… and in this hot-button case the relevant definition of “early” is “any time while elective abortion is still feasible and legal in most states.”

The use of abortion for the purposes of sex selection is far more than a phantom fear: census data that reveals the gender-ratios of children born to Asian-Americans has established a bias towards boys that can only be explained by the use of sex-selection procedures (from abortions to costly techniques like “sperm sorting“). So the practice is real, and it’s already here. Of course, cultural preferences for boys are likely to be somewhat muted amongst the general US populace: while China is facing a demographic apocalypse due to its one-child policy, most American parents seem to regard the gender of their first child as an exciting surprise with no wrong answers. But the desire to have a daughter or son at some point in the family planning process is far from unknown. It’s real enough to matter to anti-abortion advocates, and that’s what matters to me.

Some states, like Oklahoma, have already moved to ban sex-selective abortions, and Congressional legislation is pending. But given that elective abortions don’t require mothers to specify any specific reason in the first place, it’s hard to see how such legislation could ever have any real teeth as long as abortion in general is legal.

And hence the opportunity for anti-abortion rights groups. While Americans narrowly support keeping abortion legal, as of 2006 they clearly seemed to care about the reasons: less than 14% of Americans supported sex-selection. Paint abortion as the bastion of shallow sexism, and you’ve got a winning PR issue for the anti-abortion movement.

Of course, ethically, it’s hard to see how this makes any immediate sense. If you believe that elective abortions, especially in the early stages of a pregnancy, are perfectly moral and acceptable for any reason at all, it’s hard to see why even a very shallow or even outright offensive preference for having a boy or a girl should be directly objectionable. Americans might well think the idea of caring about gender is sexist, but it’s hard to see how unless there is an obvious preference for boys over girls or vice-versa. Personally, I think the desire of parents to have the experience of having both daughters and sons is perfectly legitimate, even in a gender-enlightened world.

Obviously there are slippery slope concerns. Americans seeking sex-selective abortion may not be sexist. But how long will it be until we have tests for homosexuality, eye color, and so on?

But that’s an issue for another day. I think the really tricky matter here is that very few Americans believe that “abortion for any reason” is ultimately acceptable. For whatever reason, they don’t view the fetus as truly having no moral status at all, and abortion as merely an unfortunate and horrible thing for a mothers to go through… but utterly their choice alone, with no other considerations. Because the narrative matters. Women in dire straits, who aren’t financially or emotionally ready to have or support a child evoke sympathy. A cell-phone gabbing powermom-to-be who’s angry about her future son because she already bought a pink crib evokes nothing but disdain.

I’m not sure the narrative matters to me, at least not until mid-second trimester. At six-weeks, the point where most of these tests become reasonably reliable, I can’t justify any feeling of moral concern for the fetus over even the most ugly portrayal of an expectant mother’s motives. We’re talking about something which lacks every basic capacity which sets humans apart from anything else in the universe: an unfolding construction project of genetic machinery, all on the course of building a new human mind… but simply not there yet. A set of blueprints and a skeleton framework is not yet a building, let alone a place where actual tenants could plausibly have taken up residence.

I understand that most Americans probably don’t see things that way. But as genetic testing becomes more and more of an unavoidable reality in the abortion-era, we’re going to have to have exactly these sorts of ethical discussions over moral interests. I look forward to the debate.


~ by Drew on 2009/06/09.

One Response to “Sex-Selection Detection & Protection: Abortion for Gender-Selection Rears its Head”

  1. Indeed, it will be curious to see what happens to humans when they start deciding what biology is best for them.

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