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President’s Page: Let Us Ban Sex-Selective Abortions


A baby should not be aborted solely on account of her sex (or for any other reason) in America

Female infanticide has been practiced in China for a very long
time. A thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Chinese were
already prizing their sons — and scorning their daughters. New
parents were counseled, in the words of a well known poem from the
ancient Book of Songs:

When a son is born

Let him sleep on the bed,

Clothe him with fine clothes.

And give him jade to play with .…

When a daughter is born,

Let her sleep on the ground,

Wrap her in common wrappings,

And give her broken tiles for playthings.

Unequal Gender Treatment

Such unequal treatment of the sexes, which went beyond clothing and shelter to include food and medical cure, had the intended result: Little girls died of malnutrition, disease and exposure in much greater numbers than their coddled brothers, Some Chinese parents, as everyone knows, were not content to let nature take its course. Rather, reading the second verse with deadly literalness, they wrapped their newborn girl in rags and left her by the side of the road to “sleep on the ground” forever.

Centuries later, this strong preference for sons persists not only in China, but in other countries influenced by the Confucian tradition, such as Vietnam and Korea. The Hindus in India likewise regarded sons as treasures and daughters as expendable. But it was in China itself, because of the one-child policy, that this practice first came to the attention of the West.

Consequences for China

When China’s one-child per family policy was introduced in 1980 it gave new impetus to the heinous practice of female infanticide, by making birth into a kind of one-shot Russian roulette. Have a boy, and you celebrate the continuation of your family line and the arrival of your old-age pension. Have a girl, and all of your hopes for the future die. Virtually overnight female infanticide reached epidemic proportions in many parts of China. The Beijing regime belatedly attempted to correct the problem several years later by relaxing the one-child policy in the countryside. From 1986 on, rural couples whose first child is a girl have been allowed to have a second child. Don’t kill first-born baby girls was the unspoken message of this policy shift.

Female infanticide continued, albeit at a lower level. But a new threat appeared on the horizon. The arrival of the ultrasound machine put baby girls at risk before they were born. It was clear to me from the outset that the primary use of such machines in China would be to determine the sex of the unborn child, allowing the selective elimination of females. This is why I testified before the Australian Senate in 1989 that shipping ultrasound machines to China was a bad idea. “The machines may be intended by the Australian government to improve prenatal health care,” I testified, “but on the ground in China they will he used on search-and-destroy missions for unborn baby girls.”

Parents with a strong preference for sons are now enabled by technology to act on their preferences. Both ultrasound and amniocentesis can easily identify the sex of a fetus, and sex-selective abortion has become an everyday practice. New technology, of course, is not the only factor; in some rural areas in China and elsewhere, old fashioned female infanticide still lingers.

More Evidence

As Joseph D’Agostino writes elsewhere in this issue, sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries has reached epidemic proportions. Perhaps more than 100 million females are now missing from the populations of India and China, while millions more have disappeared from neighboring populations. The violence of abortion, especially of sex-selective abortion, is making the world a more dangerous place in many ways. In China, the superabundance of unmarried males has already resulted in a more violent society, as organized crime, terrorism, trafficking in women, prostitution and homosexuality flourish.

But these problems are not limited to Asia. Sex-selective abortion is also practiced in the United States, albeit on a smaller scale. Immigrant populations of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indians bring with them their cultural preference for boys, and the ready availability of both ultrasound and abortion enables them to eliminate baby girls in utero. I have seen an advertisement where an abortionist advertised to pregnant women that he could guarantee that they gave birth to their preferred sex. That promise could only be kept by wielding the knife against the unpreferred sex.

Ban Sex-Selective Abortions

On the question of abortion, I am an abolitionist. I believe that our Founding documents speak to the sanctity of life, and that a Human Life Amendment protecting the unborn should be passed by Congress and ratified by the states. But twelve years in Washington have taught me, among other things, to count. And the votes necessary to amend the Constitution simply aren’t there. Would that they were.

Instead, in recent years the pro-life movement has sought to pass legislation banning particularly heinous forms of abortion, such as partial-birth abortion. Professor Hadley Arkes’ Born Alive Infant Protection Act is another magnificent example of this legislative approach. The absolute numbers of babies that will be saved is not great in either instance, but both have served to move public opinion in a pro-life direction. The debate over partial-birth abortion helped to uncover the ugly reality behind such euphemisms as “the termination of pregnancy” and “choice.” The Born Alive infant Protection Act forced abortion supporters to defend the indefensible: The killing of abortion survivors after birth in the name of “choice.”

Politics: Art of the Possible

Some would disparage this kind of incremental approach, thinking that we should only mobilize our forces for total victory, and that working for anything less undermines our larger prospects, and is even, somehow, dishonorable. But politics is the art of the possible, and we should never, when it comes to protecting the unborn, let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As Robert George has recently written:

The goal must be to accomplish in law and policy all that can be accomplished in the prevailing circumstances, while working to move public opinion in the directions more respectful of human life so as to make possible further advances in law and policy. Indeed, it is the small victories in the political domain that help get public opinion moving in the right direction, thus establishing the conditions for greater achievements.

Bearing all this in mind, I propose that we — the pro-life movement — adopt as our next goal the banning of sex-selective abortion. By formally protecting all female (and male) fetuses from abortion on grounds of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on his or her sex.

Banning sex-selective abortion will force supporters of abortion to publicly address a question that they will find profoundly disturbing: Is the right to abortion a license to destroy children for any and all reasons, including that of their sex? Most people of moderate persuasion, even those inclined to be “pro-choice,” will agree that the right of the unborn child to life should not depend on whether she (or he) possesses the requisite genitalia. Even those who believe in the absolute right to destroy the child under any and all circumstances, it is sale to predict, will be uncomfortable defending such an extreme position

This sense of contradiction will he further heightened among radical feminists, the shock troops of the abortion movement. They may believe that the right to abortion is fundamental to women’s emancipation, but many will recoil at the thought of aborting their unborn sisters in disproportionate numbers. How can they, who so oppose patriarchy and discrimination on the basis of sex, consent to the ultimate form of patriarchy and discrimination, namely, the elimination of baby girls solely on account of their sex? Many will be silent, while others will defend abortion with less conviction.

China and India Examples

While the pro-aborts are stuttering, we pro-lifers will be advancing new moral and logical arguments against the exercise of the “right” to an abortion solely on the grounds of sex. For those who are immune to moral arguments, we can also use the examples of China and India, where sex-selective abortion is creating enormous societal problems. We can also highlight the trivial reasons that drive most abortions by highlighting the most frivolous of them all. The debate over sex-selective abortion will also help to focus the public’s attention on how unregulated the abortion industry is. In these and other ways, the debate over this legislation will not subtract from, but add to, the larger goal of reversing Roe v. Wade.

— Steven W. Mosher

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