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“Gendercide” in Canada?

2012 May 19

Last month, the Canadian (G&M, CBC) and even international media (Economist, al-Jazeera) were all aflutter about a study which found that Indian-born women giving birth in Ontario were giving birth to more boys than girls, provoking concerns about sex-selective abortion, which one notorious Canadian columnist called “the worst form of gender discrimination”. This on the heels of an American clinic advertising preconception sex selection services to Indians in Canada, and of a CMAJ editorial calling for the withholding of sex information from parents until 30 weeks of pregnancy to prevent this “evil”, “repugnant” practice. The topic is also adding fuel to the abortion debate at large, so kindly reopened for us recently by a Conservative MP.

For me, this story has raised two important questions.

1. Really?*

Our culture has a long history of moral panic, which I only know a little about, but which is of undeniable importance. Something awful is said to be happening, usually attributed to a scary foreign source, and if you care about protecting good people from this awful thing, you get in the way by being skeptical or denying its existence. The predictable result is that public perception of the phenomenon is hugely overblown, sometimes leading to extensive and harmful witch hunts, and/or paranoia and anxiety. Probable examples: devil-worshipping sacrificial cults, poisoned Halloween candy, child abduction, honour killing, sex trafficking, etc. These moral panics also have a nasty habit of reinforcing xenophobia, and it’s easy to see the risk of that with this story. Oh dear; it’s nice to be able to give these poor foreigners opportunities for a better life, but not if they’re going to pollute our tolerant country with their horrible sexism! We can’t let them get away with it!

So, if you please, a little due diligence is in order before we charge down the trail of the supposed culprits. (I did note that most of the reporting I read was not actually very alarmist, usually giving plenty of space to both sides of the debate, but such panic is still one of the predictable side effects.)

Well, we do see different gender ratios at birth by ethnic group, but that doesn’t mean sex-selective abortion is the cause, necessarily. As the most alarming (and stigmatising) explanation, that’s the one we’re talking about, but there could be other explanations. Maybe women who are already pregnant with a boy are more likely to move to Canada while pregnant than women who are pregnant with a girl. Maybe it’s a statistical fluke. (Admittedly, neither of these seems terribly plausible to me.)

The magnitude of the numbers presented in the media were for the most part actually not that alarmist, but there was some variation. Most alarmist: a ratio of 2 boys to 1 girl in a previous study among Sikh women! Least alarmist: even if sex-selective abortion was the sole cause of the discrepancy, it would still account for less than 1% of all pregnancies in Indian-born women in Ontario.

2. So what?

This is probably the more important question. Suppose people are engaging in sex-selective abortion. What’s wrong with that? Canada is a mostly pro-choice country, I think, and legally it certainly is; to me, being pro-choice generally means respecting a woman’s decision about whether to carry a fetus, without trying to judge or intervene depending on whether her reasoning is acceptable to you. As soon as the government tries to step in and say “you can only get an abortion if we agree with your reasons”, that’s a big problem. If deprivation of individual choice doesn’t sway you, it also tends to lead to women having either unwanted and potentially unloved babies, or life-threatening back-alley abortions. Maybe it’s their families pressuring them to have the sex-selective abortion, and if we block that abortion, maybe we force mothers into situations of more abuse from their families. (And beware: I’m invoking stereotype again here.)

Okay, so maybe our efforts to stand in the way won’t actually be very helpful. But the practice is still clearly bad, right? I mean, the Economist went so far as to label it a crime against humanity. But wait, why do we think it’s bad in the first place?

Uh, it’s sexist and sexism is bad? Hello? Obviously.

Well, that was my gut reaction too, but the more I think about it, the more unsatisfying that argument feels. When I break it down a little more, I’m having a hard time seeing who actually stands to be harmed by the practice. Who could it be?

The fetuses? I don’t think human fetuses need to be treated as though they have human rights. They don’t have any more capacity for suffering than most farm animals (which we are perfectly happy to kill). They have no concept of gender. I totally support their very human mothers’ right to terminate them in other situations. So I don’t think the female fetuses themselves would suffer specially from this practice.

Other females? Maybe when people abort female fetuses, they send a message that sexism is okay—they propagate harmful attitudes. Maybe, but there are endless examples of that kind of message. I don’t see why we need to single out this one as special.

The population at large? Do individuals suffer in a gender-imbalanced society? Maybe men have trouble finding partners and get depressed or angry or violent, or men have more power to oppress through sheer numbers, or that sort of thing. Maybe, but if we accept that trying to ban or condemn/stigmatize the practice might be harmful to women, can we justify the prevention of such diffuse harm by a ban that harms specific individuals?

It’s the edge of the eugenics wedge!

Margaret Wente calls this practice “gendercide” and “the ultimate discrimination against girls”, and goes on to caution against a future where we also select our babies’ intelligence and nose size: eugenics**, basically. Setting aside the fact that these things are not now, and never will be, definitively predictable from prenatal testing (since there are lots of other factors that determine intellectual and physical development post-natally, and lots of characteristics that may be determined prenatally but simply aren’t possible to predict through any imaginable prenatal test), her point stands: if we can discriminate by gender now, we could discriminate in other ways in the future. And whatever selection ability we do develop will no doubt be preferentially available to the more powerful in society. They’ll “enhance” their offspring relative to the rest of the population, already-marginalized groups will get smaller, their lives even further devalued, class divisions and discrimination will deepen. Unless, that is, we draw a line in the sand right now, before it starts.

This is interesting. There might be something to it, but to focus on sex-selective abortion would be to be kind of inconsistent. Class divisions are already deep. And parents do lots of other things that influence their children’s future success. They eat healthy food during pregnancy, they don’t drink or smoke or use drugs, they maintain clean homes, they hire tutors, they send their kids to private school, they advocate more successfully for the social policies that will benefit their own kids. They are loving parents who want the best for their kids. But when their love is applied to their unequal social and economic resources, it becomes one of the mechanisms that sustains class inequality. We don’t make the same fuss about that; we don’t try to stand in their way (except indirectly through progressive taxation). This is just one more way for parents to give their kids every possible opportunity, at least according to their perception of opportunity. What’s the difference between engineering our biological determinants (eugenics) and our social determinants? I don’t really see one… but oh dear, now that I’ve said this, I think I’ve waded too deep into a moral quandary that I don’t see my way out of. I’m going to stop here and think about this one for a bit.

Still: sexism?

If we want to fight sexism, and we see sexism in those awful foreigners, leaving them in their awful sexist foreign country doesn’t exactly solve the problem either. Better to bring them over here and bathe them in Canadian tolerance; maybe we’ll get a little more sexist, but they’ll get less sexist. (Never mind the racism.)

*Apologies/credit to âpihtawikosisân from whom I am shamelessly lifting the technique of using headers for rhetorical questions and answers. I like it.

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