A 28-year-old pregnant woman sat in a doctor’s office in Albania with tears streaming down her face. The doctor had just informed her that she was having a girl. While seemingly good news, for this woman it was a personal nightmare. This would be her fourth daughter—a taboo in a society where culture prefers sons. The last time she had a girl, her husband and mother-in-law almost killed her, threatened to kick her and her daughters out of the house. This time, she vowed to risk her life to make sure that the same thing didn’t happen again.
The story, originally reported in Agence France-Presse last November, perfectly illustrates the dilemma that women face in societies worldwide where sons are valued over daughters, and the stigma and violence that occur when women “fail” to produce boys.
Albania and a number of countries have restricted sex-selective abortions and the use of technology for those purposes. But generally speaking, the bans have proven ineffective, and fail to promote an environment in which women giving birth to girls aren’t discriminated against. Instead, they restrict women’s rights, specifically their right to reproductive health services and to live free from violence.
Conveniently, abortion opponents have ignored this line of reasoning, and are increasingly using sex-selective abortion as a platform to advance their agenda in the name of gender equality. Far from liberating women, sex-selective abortion is killing millions of “unborn girls” and magnifying the prejudice and mistreatment of the girls that do make it out of the womb – so the argument goes. And with that, traditional allies of the woman’s movement often fall victim to this disingenuous argument.
Last year in fact, lawmakers in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, led by a well-known Italian anti-choice activist, introduced a motion for a resolution that declared sex-selective abortion as “gendercide,” purportedly to address Europe’s skewed sex ratios. The Assembly appointed Doris Stump (left) of Switzerland, a pro-choice and feminist parliamentarian, as the Rapporteur on the matter.
Although she had very little knowledge on the issue of sex-selection, Stump was asked to explore it further and submit recommendations to the Assembly. Despite attempts—by the Center for Reproductive Rights, for which I work, along with its European partners and the World Health Organization—to convince her to tackle sex-selection more holistically, she delivered a resolution that called for the prohibition of sex-selective abortions, and described the practice as a form of psychological violence against women, ignoring cultural contexts and naively insisting that women are always forced to the practice and would otherwise "never dream" of doing such a thing.
The European Assembly’s resolution exemplifies the pedagogical challenge that sex-selective abortion presents. We’re all outraged by the practice, but without much knowledge, it’s easy to call for its prohibition. In reality, there are many circumstances in which women are severely punished if they give birth to girls, and in that context, an abortion is rational.
Banning sex-selective abortion hasn’t stopped it from happening. Research shows that when abortion services aren’t available, women often resort to unsafe options, increasing their chances of serious and fatal complications. According to Guttmacher Institute, approximately 20 million unsafe abortions occur around the world annually. Virtually all of them take place in developing countries, where contraception is scarce, and very restrictive abortion laws are the norm.
Furthermore, banning abortion services means that a government is forcing many women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and, where son preference is predominant, many women are forced into having multiple children until they have a boy.
Within the international human rights community, there’s clear recognition that gender-biased sex-selection is an expression of sex discrimination and should be eliminated. At the same time, there’s recognition that countries have an obligation to guarantee that the practice is addressed in a manner that doesn’t further violate women’s rights, especially their reproductive rights.
Laws and policies that restrict the use of technology for sex-selection purposes or ban sex-selective abortion may be well-intended, but they have the potential to violate women’s rights to life, health, and bodily integrity. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled against Poland for allowing doctors to repeatedly deny a woman genetic testing. The Court found that Poland’s failure to provide the woman relevant information about her pregnancy amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment.
Modern technology has indeed facilitated the determination of sex before birth, thus accelerating the problem of gender-biased sex-selection. But the availability of technology hasn’t caused sex-selection to become normalized. It’s a country’s laws, policies and societal practices that relegate women to second-class citizenship and perpetuate customs that favor boys over girls. In Western Europe, for example, where women have achieved considerable gender equality, prenatal technology is widely available and sex-selection is virtually unheard of.
Exchanging one manifestation of inequality with measures that produces more inequality guarantees that women will pay the price (see on-the-ground description of ineffectiveness of sex-selective ban in India in this IntLawGrrls post). Gender equality is hardly the motivation of opponents of abortion rights. Rather it’s a tactical step towards restricting abortion.
This is further underscored in the European Assembly example by the fact that sex-selection in Europe is a fabricated concern. While Parliamentarian Stump’s research did acknowledge skewed sex ratios in four countries, it also concluded that it isn’t a significant or widespread problem.
Gender discrimination is deeply embedded within institutions such as marriage and property inheritance laws. (See examples in this IntLawGrrls post on gendercide in China.) Rather than focusing on one specific manifestation of gender inequality, governments should pass measures that promote the equal value of women, and their equality in all aspects of life through education campaigns and the development of legal frameworks.
It’s equally important that civil society and women’s rights supporters monitor anti-choice efforts to co-opt gender equality. We must develop smart countertactics to expose their real agenda. Such work will involve the pedagogical task of explaining why the practice of sex-selective abortion needs to be combated not in the most obvious way—by banning it—but in ways that do not further violate women’s rights.