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Why is aborting female foetuses so shocking?

2007 December 9
by Paul Vallely

Why are we so shocked at the news that women from Britain’s Indian communities – as many as 1,500 of them in the last 15 years, according to population researchers at Oxford – have been obtaining abortions when they discovered that the child they were carrying was a girl? That might sound a daft question. But it is worth unpacking.

To many people the answer is obvious. Some see all abortion as wrong; others are uneasy that something they endorse as a necessary evil is being embarked upon too readily and too casually today. The idea of destroying a human life because it is the wrong gender seems just a further slip into callous indifference.

But where does female foeticide – they have even come up with a particular name for it – leave those who argue for “a women’s right to choose”? If a woman’s control over her body is to be accorded so absolute a status that she can chose an abortion because the timing is not right, because a pregnancy might interfere with her career plans or some other lifestyle choice, it is hard to see how a moral distinction can be drawn between that and her right to control in other respects. If a woman can choose how many children she has, and when, is there an ethical difference between that and her wanting to decide what sex her next child should be?

The pro-choice lobby here has to shift the ground of its argument, assuming of course, as I do, that they would find the notion of selectively killing female foetuses abhorrent. They cannot argue from the rights of the foetus, since they already insist that it has none, or that its rights are subordinate to those of the mother. So they must argue from the woman’s rights.

Certainly it is possible to do that in the case of the mother from the British Indian community who was interviewed by the BBC Asian network this week. She already had three daughters and was under considerable pressure most particularly from her husband’s family to produce a son and heir. It seemed as though this was not whole-heartedly her own view but rather had acquiesced when she went to India to find a doctor who would perform a scan to, illegally, determine the gender of the child in her womb and put in chain an abortion if required.

But that argument cannot hold where a woman endorses the norm within her culture that a family needs a boy-child, for both dynastic but also economic reasons, dowries being expensive. Then the argument has to shift and become an absolutist one which proclaims some cultural values – be they polygamy or female circumcision – to be inferior to others. Most Christians would have no problem with that; nor would many secularist rationalists, who insist that  Enlightenment values like democracy and individual freedom transcend culture. But it is an standpoint that many others dispute, seeing Universal Declarations on Human Rights by the United Nations merely as expressions of Western culture. Either way, it takes us on to very tricky ground if our starting point is choice. In the ethics of choice, the chooser is supreme.

All this takes us – I suspect – up a logical cul-de-sac, so far as female foeticide is concerned. For there is something more than disapproval of discrimination against women in the repugnance we feel at the idea of killing a child in utero because she happens to be a girl. It is the killing, not the prejudice of selection, that so repels us.

Which is what makes me suspect that cultural foeticide tells us more about abortion than some might suspect or want to acknowledge. The old black and white arguments on abortion have lost their emotional pull. Something more messy and paradoxical is merging which may yet bring changes in our wider abortion law.


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