The Question of “Gendercide” and Sex-Selective Abortion

This piece is in response to a post on Princess Masako and the value societies globally place on sons over daughters, written by Anushay Hossain. I am writing because I see the debate becoming much more polarized than is necessary or productive. I’ve thought a lot more about this issue from the angle of political philosophy, and feel I have a new viewpoint to contribute to the situation. I think if we have a calm dialogue about the issue we can recognize that “gendercide” can “happen” without any specific individual intending for it to happen. I also believe that the simple fact that a woman “chooses” to have an abortion, if she is choosing out of fear or desperation, does not mean she is choosing in such a way that authentically advances her freedom of choice. However, I think we can address that problem without restricting a woman’s pre-given right to choose to have an abortion, as a lot of people seem to be assuming. The situation is not so polar as the dialogue would have it seem.
One of my inspirations here is the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who in his article ‘Preferences and Politics’ argues via the idea of an “endogenous preference” that we cannot assume that democracy represents choices that people make in some pre-political vacuum. The problem is, the choices people make are already going to be heavily conditioned by state influences, along with mass media and popular culture, prior to the moment they step in the voting box, so much so that the very fact that someone chooses something does not mean it is in their best interest. with this in mind, and yes, keeping in mind the grave dangers of misapplication of this idea, Sunstein wants to ask the question: When and how is it appropriate for the State to intervene in people’s decision-making process on their own behalf, when those decisions would actually undermine their own freedom. There is a little essay explaining the ideas here.
The question of sex-selective abortion is a clear case where such an idea is relevant. I personally have no interest in morally condemning any individual woman who chooses to have an abortion for any reason whatsoever. What I am concerned with, however, is the large-scale social level on which society is conditioning people en masse, and systematically, in such a way that something vaguely like gendercide is committed. I use the passive sense, “is committed,” here because it can happen without us needing to point fingers to any one individual who is responsible for it.

It is not my interest to say that individual women making choices about sex-selective abortion are themselves perpetrators of gendercide. However, if situations like the ones mentioned in some parts of India (12-1 Boy-Girl rations) are any indication, gendercide is happening. The answer is NOT to restrict freedom to choose. Instead, let’s be productive here: What kind of educational resources are necessary to allow women to make informed choices, and not merely desperate ones, about whether or not to abort a female fetus? What kind of legal restrictions (perhaps like the one on psychological violence in France?) are necessary to prevent abject coercion on the part of the husband, family, or greater community?
We do not need to undermine or restrict a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion in order to recognize that this kind of abortion is a special case for which we might need to create special modes of thought. Birth control, family planning, education, legal protections. The urgency of this could be greatly benefited if people were willing to recognize the idea of ‘gendercide,’ without stepping on any women’s rights to choose.
Can we choose to be unfree? I think we have every obligation to assume that women do not want to render their own genders extinct. If they do not want to have a pregnancy either way, they of course need the right to choose this. But if they want a child, and desperately fear the repercussions, immediate or long-term, of having a female child, that is a problem. They are not truly “choosing” here. And when it is a problem on such a widespread and systematic level, we can talk about a cultural movement towards something that looks like “gendercide” without demonizing anyone. We can simply address the situation honestly and ask ourselves what we need to do as a society in order to allow women to really have the right to choose.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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