Arizona’s Faulty Logic on Sex-Selective Abortion

Angi Becker Stevens

As if there were not already enough barriers to abortion access constructed in the name of “protecting women,” Arizona has become the first state to ban abortions performed on the basis of the race or sex of the fetus.

As if there were not already enough barriers to abortion access constructed in the name of “protecting women,” Arizona has become the first state to ban abortions performed on the basis of the race or sex of the fetus. Leaving aside for now the “race” side of the coin—a seemingly bizarre response to the “abortion is racist” rhetoric—I’d like to offer just a few thoughts on the genuinely complex issue of sex-selective abortion, and how horribly the new Arizona law misses the point.

In countries where sex-selective abortion is actually a common phenomenon, the issue is a thorny one for reproductive rights activists to tackle. Many parts of India have seen a steady decline in the ratio of girls to boys since the introduction of sex-identifying ultrasound technology; the trend is the subject of an entire chapter of Michelle Goldberg’s The Means of Reproduction. Feminists in India rally against sex-selective abortion, while at the same time recognizing the fine line they must walk to avoid speaking in terms that will add fuel to the international antiabortion fire. How does one criticize the rampant abortion of girls while still defending abortion in general as a perfectly valid choice? There is no simple answer, but it is vital to recognize that abortion itself is not the problem. The root cause, rather, is a cultural structure in which having only daughters leads to real economic hardship in the form of dowry. Male children are a financial gain for a family; female children are a financial loss. And as long as that structure persists, at least some parents will be driven to great lengths to avoid the burden of daughters—whether via female infanticide as was common in the past, or the more modern technological innovation of sex-selection.

In the U.S., while men are absolutely still privileged over women, the sex of one’s child simply does not offer the same kind of material advantages or disadvantages that it offers in a culture with strict dowry practices. This isn’t by any means intended to downplay the extent of sexism in the U.S. or to claim any cultural superiority, only to point out that the varieties of female oppression found here don’t happen to translate into a desperation for fewer female infants. We have our own problems—and plenty of them—but sex-selective abortion as a widespread phenomenon is not likely to be one of them anytime soon. I am no advocate for relativism, but there is a difference between relativism and a recognition of cultural context. We do a disservice to women everywhere when we take the relativistic stance that the preservation of a culture must mean defending traditions that are inherently harmful and oppressive to women. But we commit a different kind of disservice by attempting to ignore cultural differences all together. Solidarity between women around the world need not—and cannot—mean pretending the injustices we face are all the same.

The new law in Arizona is clearly about nothing more than chipping away at abortion access by any possible means, which is bad enough in its own right. What makes this particular slant even more disturbing, however, is the way it co-opts a very real and challenging issue facing women in other cultures for the sake of crafting anti-woman legislation. Indian feminists do not want to eliminate reproductive choices. They seek to change the cultural conditions that impede real reproductive choice; the selective abortion of female fetuses as a response to coercive social forces cannot truly be considered a “choice” in any meaningful sense of the word. Like feminists around the globe, Indian feminists are striving for more freedom for women, not less. And in distorting the meaning of these women’s work for the purpose of limiting the freedom of women, Arizona’s legislature has committed an act of profound disrespect not only to the women of Arizona, but to the women of India as well.

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