Johnston: Sex-selective abortion is sexist

The Oklahoma House voted yesterday to ban sex-selective abortion, opening the next front in the legal war over abortion.

If passed by the Oklahoma Senate and signed into law, the ban (House Bill 1595) will immediately be challenged, and the case may ascend to the Supreme Court. Like Gonzalez v. Carhart, the 2007 decision that upheld a federal ban on partial birth abortion, the case would have significant implications for the prerogatives of legislatures in the regulation of abortion. Where Carhart upheld the right of a legislature to regulate abortion methods, this case would consider whether legislatures may regulate abortion motives.

The cultural impact of this ban may be far greater than the legal precedent that emerges after years in the courts. Public debate surrounding sex-selective abortion will reveal the uncomfortable truth that the pro-choice movement is not nearly as feminist as Americans think or women deserve.

In theory, sex-selective abortion could eliminate boys or girls. In practice, it is almost always committed on girls. If the pro-choice movement were as feminist as it claims, this would be cause for serious concern. But the pro-choice movement is so enthralled by the ideology of autonomy that it will follow its logic even to the oppression of the female sex.

Feminists believe in equal representation of women in the professions, among them business, the academy and government. The termination of a woman from a professional position, because she is a woman, is an unconscionable relic of a sexist past.

How much more problematic is the termination of a woman’s life because she is a woman? Yet this is the very essence of sex-selective abortion, a practice the legality of which one can expect the pro-choice movement to fight tooth and nail to uphold.

It will have to fight hard, considering the strong opposition of the American people. A 2006 poll found that 86 percent of Americans support a ban of sex-selective abortion. And Oklahoma House Bill 1595 passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 93 to 4. So the pro-choice movement will turn, as it always has, to the undemocratic courts in the hope that they will enforce the ideology of autonomy to which Americans do not subscribe.

The issue offers an opportunity for President Obama. On one hand, he situated himself within the pro-choice movement during the campaign by declaring the Freedom of Choice Act one of his top legislative priorities. If this Obama appears, expect complete lockstep with pro-choice opposition to any ban.

But Obama has also expressed desire to move beyond the partisan debates of the past and to find common ground to reduce the number of abortions though maintaining their legality. A ban of sex-selective abortion fits this post-partisan space: It contributes to a cultural opprobrium on abortion, on feminist grounds, without challenging the legality of abortion generally.

President Obama recently lifted the Mexico City Policy that prohibited federal dollars from going to international organizations that perform abortions. In the first two weeks of his administration, this was by far his least-popular initiative, incurring a disapproval rating over 50 percent.

President Obama should issue a new policy requiring that any such organization disavow sex-selective abortion, and then ask Congress to send him a ban of sex-selective abortion in America. He would thus bring the Democratic Party back to feminism, and begin the process of freeing it from the clutches of the ideology of autonomy.

An end to the ideology of autonomy is necessary to the revelation of truth. For the ultimate truth is that abortion is not a choice. No action performed under duress is a choice. A woman who has an abortion because she lacks the means to care for her baby is neither a heroine of choice nor heiress to the progress of freedom. Rather, she is oppressed. She is oppressed by a culture that teaches her to give her body up for the sexual gratification of self-centered men and then leaves her to deal with the resulting baby as if it is merely her problem. It is little wonder that she is reluctant to bring a child into such a world.

From the point of view of feminism, sex-selective abortion is an abomination and abortion, generally, a disease. We ought to ban the former and treat the latter. The pro-choice movement allows neither. It is time for the Democratic Party to move on.

Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.


  • Anonymous

    Ok, there really no sense arguing in principle with this kind of radical anti-abortion position (I find the term "pro-life" misleading on too many levels).
    Therefore, just a brief note. Although it is true that sex-selective abortions are indicative of sexism, the problem is how to determine one's motives. I doubt that there are many people who will go into an abortion clinic and say something like "I think women are extremely stupid and utterly worthless, and therefore I want an abortion." In other words, once we start questioning the motives, we are inevitably opening a Pandora's box - which motives are acceptable and which are not and how do we asses whether the person is telling the truth, etc. Trying to put this to practice would make abortions very complicated, perhaps impossible. That, of course, is what the author really wants. However, it is up to us not to fall for his witty rhetorical tricks.

  • Goose

    Why not send all our women to the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan and do away with pregnancy entirely? Only a fool destroys the goose that lays the golden egg.

  • Davenport '09

    I agree with #1. A ban on sex-selection motivated abortion would simply be impossible to enforce. Either the woman would have to self-report the motives for her decision, or her doctor would be asked to render his/her judgement on the woman's motives. The first is impractical, and the second opens to door to easy abuse of the doctor's discretion.

    Beyond that point, I can only say this: This article falls in line with a pro-life tactic that is either uninformed or willfully disingenuous about the reasons women choose to have abortions. The sex selection argument is a straw man only a few steps away from the old absurd tale of the woman who has abortions because she doesn't like to use contraceptives during sex. And while is may not come to mind immediately to the young and ambitious here, abortions are not solely the last resort for young women abandoned by their feckless sexual partners, but also for those in serious and committed relationships who may not have the resources or the wherewithal to care for a disabled child.

    There are obviously weighty moral issues at play in all of these situations, and there are no easy answers when it comes to abortion. I think there can be legitimate debate and disagreement on these topics (which for me serves as a powerful rationale for preserving an individual's right to come to her own conclusion, but hey, that's just me). But if we are going to talk about abortion, we should speak frankly and fully about abortion. Not about some deplorable but absurd scenario.

  • Yale 09

    No one can support sex-selection via abortion.

    Will the real feminists please stand up?

    I can't wait to hear the reps from the Women's Center rationalize (irrationalize?) away their stance on this issue.

  • jb

    I find it surprising and almost hard to believe that Oklahomans prefer male children so much to female children that they would abort a fetus simply because it is female. Do you have numbers to back this up?

  • Hieronymus

    @#1: Wow… you consider this piece "radical?" You're joking right?

    Is it because the author used the word "abomination" (in describing "sex-selective abortion")? I mean, the author doesn't even come right out and demand a ban on all abortion (he states that abortion is a disease that needs treatment, which is a bit ambiguous).

    Is that "radical"?

    His statements are generally factual: abortion disproportionately terminates minorities and females--do you dispute that?

    And while his penultimate paragraph is certainly more strident than the preceding few, is he…wrong? Is he…radical? Indeed, he almost spouts a Feminist view; is this version of Feminism…radical? Wrong?

    Do not try do divine my position from these comments--I can only guarantee that you will be wrong. But I will say this: just because something is legal does not necessarily make it right.

    Why not answer the simpler question: should sex-selective abortion be legal?

  • science ftw

    Sooooo… Here's an example. There are hereditary disorders that are only passed down on the Y chromosome. That's a reason why someone might want to abort a male foetus.

  • a feminist

    Of course I think that sex-selective abortion is wrong, as does every feminist. Peter, you've done nothing more that create a straw man - the feminist who has no problem with sex-selective abortion.

    I would oppose banning it only for the reasons that #1 and #3 describe. I can't see how one would possibly enforce it, at least in the United States. In China (where sex-selective abortion is a far greater problem) they ban doctors from telling parents the sex of an infant before it is born. That ban has proven mostly ineffective, and even if it worked, it could never be implemented in the US. Banning the abortion itself doesn't work - because people can and will lie about their motives if the law bans abortion based on motive.

    So let's be honest about why pro-lifers really want this. It is simply an attempt to create another legal obstacle for women who want an abortion for any reason. Make abortion harder using whatever tactics you can - and trying to force those who support ensuring women access to abortion to cast a vote that seems to be in favor of allowing sex-selective abortion is a brilliant strategy.

    But, in reality, it is not in the least contradictory to support abortion rights, be a feminist, oppose sex-selective abortion, and yet think that banning it is at best futile and at worst an impediment to other women who choose to abort.

  • Bosch

    The answer is no, H, for the absurdly obvious reasons that #3 enumerated.

  • Hieronymus

    @#6: Speaking of Straw Persons:

    "[Abortion is] also for those in serious and committed relationships who may not have the resources or the wherewithal to care for a disabled child."

    Uh, yeah. Right. All those abortions are for disabled children.

    [Side note: entire organizations exist to ADOPT babies with Down Syndrome, so add "red herring" to your argumentative fallacies.]

    More Straw Persons: Abortions are for "rape and incest." I wonder what the percentage is for the two classes combined… I am going to hazard 1%.

    Now, to the idea that we should not pass a law due to its "unenforcability": I guess laws on suicide should be rescinded (no doubt many pro-abortion folks would agree)? Clearly our narcotics laws are unenforcable… What else? Underage drinking? Honor codes (something Yalies reject implicitly if not explicitly)?

    Straw Persons indeed…

  • @Hieronymous

    You ask us to answer the question "should sex-selective abortion be legal?" Let's say, for argument's sake, that the answer to that is "no."
    How would you prove that a woman who had gotten an abortion had done so on the basis of sex. Furthermore, what would the penalty be? For a law to have any real credibility, it must a) be enforceable and b) involve some sort of penalty for breaking the law.
    So, I ask you, how would a prosecutor prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a woman's abortion had been sex selective? Would the prosecutor dig through her emails, hoping that she had expressed either some hatred for herself, or some for men? Would the prosecutor rely on the testimony of a spurned lover with potentially questionable motives?
    How would the Prosecutor even receive a complaint about a sex-selective abortion having taken place? And what are the chances that someone taking the time to allege sex-selective abortion would actually provide testimony that would lead a judge in his right mind to sign any sort of a search or arrest warrant?
    If you want to make something illegal, you have to account for these questions lest you enact a statute that becomes the basis for anti-abortion activists to humiliate women and denigrate their Constitutionally-protected right to sue.
    Additionally, what sort of penalty do you propose for a "sex-selective" abortion? A slap on the wrist? Incarceration? Any of these seems a bit outrageous, to be sure. I can think of no other instance in American law where it is thought acceptable to penalize a person for exercising his or her Constitutional rights, even if the exercise comes as a result of suspect motives.
    This is an idiotic law, and any lawyer worth his the paper his law degree is printed on would rip it to shreds in court.

  • @ Hieronymous

    To answer your question: No. ***

    Sex-selective abortion should not be legal. It has incredibly harmful consequences for women, and women's rights, and for male-female interactions.
    However, as the above commmenters have accurately states, diving motives in abortion is simply not possible. The legal route is not the way to prevent sex-selection.

    There is only one practical way to prevent sex-selective abortion: to ban the parental-notification of sex until, say, week 24 of pregnancy, after which time abortion is never done electively (i.e. for non-medical reasons). This would compromise certain rights, regarding the right of parents, and the right of women, to know medical information about her body.

    It is not an extreme measure, but it certainly is serious, and thus it should not be done without clear evidence of necessity. Given that there is no evidence of sex-selection being a systemic problem in the U.S., it should not be instituted at this time.

    Attempts to make it an issue now are clearly tied to general anti-abortion arguments and political desires. I can't help but note the irony that many of the people who want to pass major legislation without clear evidence to its necessity are the same ones who argue against climate change legislation — despite substantial evidence.

    *** Hieronymous: Comments like, "Do not try do divine my position from these comments--I can only guarantee that you will be wrong" implicitly try to create the aura of 'centrism' and 'moderation,' while thus painting the person you attack as "radical" and "ideological." It's a unbecoming and immature form of argument, because what it actually does is make you look naive — ignorant of your own ideological predispositions. Especially given the frequency (and relative prdictability) of your commenting, you would do well to lose the facade.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent column. All feminists should be Feminists for Life.

  • MJG

    Of course motives are hard to discern, but everyone here seems to be forgetting that nevertheless likely motives are often taken into consideration (and are often central issues) in all kinds of criminal proceedings.

    Also, I think it needs to be reiterated that laws need not be perfectly enforcable to have an effect. If nothing else, even fairly toothless laws serve as a cultural expression of disapproval that make some people think twice about aborting because of the gender of the baby.

    Also, it's been hinted at a couple of times, but the feminism/gender element here is only one interesting facet of a wider issue. Replace feminists with disability rights advocates and female fetuses with Down Syndrome babies and see if you are still so sure that these types of issues aren't a problem. 90% of Down's Syndrome babies are aborted in this country. And for a thought experiment that I heard recently, what if a religious nutcase of some sort decides she wants to abort a baby because a doctor determines from genetics that it will turn out gay? And how do we stop from reaching the point where abortions happen because parents don't like the eye color or IQ of the child? Is the law really so difficult to enforce (especially when considering bans on a doctor's disclosure of certain information) that nothing can be done? I fear for the future the answer is yes, since it means that our obsession with radical autonomy is so pervasive that it has actually paralyzed us.

  • Willoughby Chase

    This article is brilliant because it exposes a fundamental flaw in the pro-abortion argument. If feminist accept a concern for sex-selective abortion they must accept the importance, consequence, and individuality of the fetus. Otherwise, they shouldn't care at all about what happens to the fetus. On one hand they claim that the fetus is not human and on the other they express concern for the female fetus - as if she could matter according to their first argument!

    The issue of sex-selective abortion shows how big a difference killing a human life can make - we aren't just killing random cells we are fundamentally changing the future of humanity every time an abortion happens. One way we can change that humanity is by dangerously changing the demographic make-up of our population. We were not given a choice as to the sex of our children or when exactly women get pregnant for a reason. Our unlimited choice in the matter would destroy our civilization.

    The issue of sex-selective abortion exposes the dangers of giving the masses too much license and choice. We can clearly see the slippery slope that legalized abortion leads us down. Maybe in the United States currently sex-selective abortion would not be a problem, but it opens the door to the demographic and moral collapse of our nation. One would need to have much faith in the morality of U.S. citizens to give them so much license and choice. But if they were really filled with so much benevolence you wouldn't need laws at all.

  • Anonymous

    The defenders of the article are unable to tackle one fundamental objection: how do we determine the intention? How do we know that somebody resorts to an abortion because of the baby's sex. Do we arrest the women and interrogate her? Do we force her to have an interview before the abortion? Are we going to criminally persecute this woman? Although there is no reason to believe such measure would be effective in preventing sex-selective abortion, it is clear that it would make having an abortion more difficult in principle. That, as someone already observed is the real intention of the author. The question of sex-selective abortion and the question of feminism are simply a smoke screen that hides what is really at stake: the abortion itself. Woman's right to choose whether to have the baby or not may be less than an ideal solution, but it is certainly better than giving that right to the state.
    As to the question whether sex-selective abortion should be legal, the answer is simple: Yes, because all abortion should be legal.

  • @ Willoughby Chase

    1."If feminist accept a concern for sex-selective abortion they must accept the importance, consequence, and individuality of the fetus."

    Actually, they don't need to. The issue has nothing to do with the individual fetus, but rather with individuals — male and female — who ARE alive, and who would be negatively affected by skewing the demographics.

    No "concern for the female fetus" — just for female citizens.

    2. We're always "changing the future of humanity." Technology, laws, agriculture, commerce, modern healthcare — all change how we interact.

    3. "We were not given a choice as to the sex of our children or when exactly women get pregnant for a reason."

    True, no one "gave" us a choice. We have choices because we are free human beings, deciding our own fates, rather than prescribing them based on particular religious beliefs that prescrive morality and dignity to clumps of cells.

    4. Maybe we have "faith in the morality of U.S. citizens," precisely because in the United States currently sex-selective abortion would not be a problem."

    But, even if I didn't have faith in the morality of U.S. citizens, what makes you think that I should have faith in YOUR morality.

    (I don't.)

  • NoraC

    A trained drug dog costs about $10,000 and then there is the dog handler and annual training, special insurance riders. The dogs aren't even reliable according to information easily available to residents of New Haven -- simply search the subject on the internet: Reliability of drug dogs.

    So, now New Haven residents need to ask -- why the dog? Why the rifles?

  • Hieronymus

    For the record: I *love* the moniker "Willoughby Chase."

  • @#16

    Did you really just claim to know the "real intention of the author" in a paragrpah which you began with the claim that it is impossible to determine intentions?

  • Beverly McCormick

    Kudos to Mr. Johnston for your well stated arguments in opposition to sex selective abortion, which I consider almost as heinous as partial birth abortion. Willoughby Chase couldn't be more pompous if he tried. I am assuming his male gender, but I could be wrong. In that case, it blows my mind that a female could be so "off base". We are truly on a slippery slope to extinction, but are too blind and self-centered to see it. May God have mercy on us!

  • Beverly McCormick

    Kudos to Mr. Johnston for your well stated arguments in opposition to sex selective abortion, which I consider almost as heinous as partial birth abortion. Willoughby Chase couldn't be more pompous if he tried. I am assuming his male gender, but I could be wrong. In that case, it blows my mind that a female could be so "off base". We are truly on a slippery slope to extinction, but are too blind and self-centered to see it. May God have mercy on us!
    Oops! I want to apologize to Willoughby Chase. I was actually responding to #17, who was referring to the comment posted by Willoughby Chase. I agree with Willoughby Chase, and my comments are aimed at #17. The entire abortion issue continues to cloud and become complicated by those with an immoral agenda. The simple truth is that there is no Constitutional right to abortion, only an infamous Supreme Court decision, which was allowed to be carried out because of the inaction of an uninformed Congress on Jan. 22, 1973. Congress has control over the Supreme Court, not the opposite. The Supreme Court is an appellate court "with such exceptions and under such regulations as Congress shall make". Ultimately Congress has the last word regarding cases the Supreme Court hears, and could have enforced that power in 1973, with a little bit of courage. We had better pray for the survival of our once great Republic, guided by the still great U.S. Constitution.

  • Anonymous

    Banning sex-selective abortions, just like the ban on "partial birth" abortions, would only actually effect a tiny percentage of the abortions performed in this country. The law is much more a statement by anti-choice supporters to chip away at Roe v. Wade than to deal with a concerning issue. The use of "feminism" rhetoric is offensive. No educated feminist is going to see the solution to the devaluing of females in society as placing limits on access to legal abortion. This issue is much more of a legitimate concern in other parts of the world, like India, and needs to be addressed by challenging cultural standards that don't appreciate women's contributions to the economy and overall social wellbeing.

  • @#20

    Gonna assume that #20 actually meant to deride the *response* (#17) to Willoughby Chase.

  • @ 19

    Please, let's not play these infantile games. I made a judgment about the author's intention based on an analysis of his rhetorical strategy. That as a method is perfectly fine for a newspaper discussion, or even for an academic one. The same method is not applicable to determining somebody's intention BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT in a (possibly) criminal trial. I have concluded from the way in which the author presents his argument that he is making something of a rhetorical diversion. How would a similar method work in the examination of the motives of a woman who decided to get an abortion? I suppose something like: "Oh, you say that you didn't get an abortion because of your baby's sex, but through the careful analysis of your discourse, we have concluded that you really did, so you're going to jail". And I suppose that the verdict should back such an assessment with references to Derrida and de Man.

  • dave

    It sounds like the law lacks teeth to enforce it. To challenge the law you would need a mother who was actually denied an abortion by an abortionist on the basis of her seeking gender selection. I don't see an abortionist doing that, its an extra $300 in their pocket.

    The law serves the purpose of embodying Nebraska's public policy disfavoring abortions on the basis of gender and it brings national attention to a paradox the pro-abortion establishment has found itself in.

    It is actually pretty ingenius, if Planned Parenthood or NARAL challenge the law, they have to do so in the face of a nation that disagrees with their position (I mean seriously this is not ancient Sparta where we leave girl babies on the hillside to die). They lose their title as a "woman's rights organization". It would be a public relations nightmare.

    On the other hand, if the law is not challenged, it stands in the face of Roe v. Wade as a restriction on pre-viability abortions. Both chip away at Roe v. Wade. Ingenius.

  • seriously?

    Peter Johnston, I think I would try investigating the actual statistics before making this sort of argument. In the United States, sex-selective abortion is used almost entirely for family balance and hence falls equally on both genders. Try taking Prof. Latham's Bioethics course on the subject. Thus, while this may be a more relevant issue in countries like China, your concerns are simply without basis in the United States. I am also curious why your membership in the Choose Life at Yale group is not mentioned in your article. Some might consider such a statement full disclosure.

  • @#26

    Wait- is there someone at Yale who doesn't already know that Peter Johnston is pro-life? If so, they don't deserve full disclosure.

  • Younger Lefty

    Peter, I think all the CLAY stuff is paying off. You're starting to sound reasonable and intelligent. ;P