Female Feticide Is Not A Thing

29 Nov

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about “female feticide” lately.

First of all, there was this Toronto Star article, published back in April, about the six GTA hospitals (all in areas with large South Asian populations) that won’t reveal the baby’s gender to parents because of fears of “female feticide”.

Then, there was Conservative MP Mark Marawa’s Motion 408, which reads as follows: “That the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.” 

Most recently, I had the following image pop up on my Facebook feed:


Female feticide, or sex-selective pregnancy termination, is typically defined as an elective abortion performed after a pregnant woman has learned that her fetus is female. In cultures where males have higher status than females, and male children have more value than female children, it is becoming more and more common for women to terminate pregnancies based on the fetus’ gender. Two countries where this practice is especially prevalent are India and China; it’s estimated that the gender ratio in India for children under the age of six is currently 109.4 males to 100 females, and in China is around 106 males to 100 females (although in some provinces it goes as high as 130 to 100).

The fact that these abortions happen because girls have so little value in some cultures is abhorrent to me. The fact that a woman would terminate a pregnancy just because of the gender of the fetus both horrifies and sickens me. But you know what? Female feticide is not the problem, it’s just a symptom. The treatment of girls and women in certain cultures, and the underlying beliefs that lead to this treatment, are the problem.

There are so many things about the discourse surrounding female feticide that bother me; I even find the name itself problematic. I mean, first of all, let’s be super clear on one thing: FETICIDE IS NOT A THING. This is not a word people should use, unless they want to be seen as part of the pro-life movement. It doesn’t matter that it’s female fetuses being aborted; it’s still not called feticide. If a woman chooses to abort her fetus because prenatal testing has shown that is has some form of disability, do we call that “disabled feticide”? If a woman terminates her pregnancy because she can’t afford another child, do we call it “penurious feticide”? No. No we don’t. Why female feticide, then? Why do we target this one type of abortion as being so much more heinous than others?

All of which brings me to my next point:

There is no hierarchy of abortions. There is not one type of abortion that’s fine and another that isn’t. You can’t say that it’s all right for a woman to terminate her pregnancy because it’s just not the right time in her life to have a child, or because it’s her first abortion and she was using birth control and it’s totally not her fault, but then turn around and say that a woman can’t choose to abort based on the gender of her fetus. You are either pro-choice or you aren’t. It’s as simple as that. Sure, you can feel uncomfortable about the reasons why another woman might terminate a pregnancy, but guess what? You don’t get to say shit about it, because it’s her choice.

See, that’s really the crux of the matter here: choice. Choice, and bodily autonomy, and agency. When you don’t give a woman all of the information available regarding her pregnancy because you are afraid that she will make the wrong choice with that information, then you are removing her agency. Ultimately, don’t we want to be empowering women and girls in these cultures that give their lives so little value? How is removing a woman’s agency empowering her at all?

I know exactly what you’re going to say. But what if she’s pressured into the decision to abort? What if she asks for an abortion because her husband is forcing her to get one? 

For one thing, there is no foolproof way to tell if a woman is being forced or manipulated into something. None. We can’t just go around operating on the assumption that any given woman out there is being controlled by a man; I think we have to assume that they are acting under their own power until proven otherwise. For another, what is a woman going to learn if she goes from a partner who is trying to control the outcome of her pregnancy to a doctor who is also trying to control the outcome of her pregnancy? The main thing that she is learning is that she has no agency over her own body. Finally, maybe a better solution would be to provide safer spaces for women who doctors feel are at a higher risk for being in abusive relationships; we should give them the chance to speak their own mind and present them with information and resources, rather than just refusing to reveal their fetus’ gender.

Another issue that I have with the term female feticide and the ways that we talk about it are that it’s hard not to feel like this is an effort by the pro-life groups to try to get feminists and liberal left-wingers on board with the idea that abortions are wrong. It kind of happens in baby steps, you know? First we say that one type of abortion is wrong and should be made illegal, and then another, until finally the procedure is outlawed altogether. I mean, it seems very telling that Motion 408 was put forth by a Conservative Party MP, you know? Looking at that graphic above, I can’t help but imagine it without the text at the bottom – just a fetus with the text, I want to live, Maa. Seen that way, it bears a striking resemblance to a lot of the pro-life rhetoric.

I guess that at the end of the day, I just don’t see how limiting a pregnant woman’s knowledge about her fetus, or not allowing her the choice to terminate her pregnancy, is going to empower women. All that will happen is that she will give birth to a daughter that she (or her husband) doesn’t want, who might end up being neglected, hurt, or even killed; if that daughter somehow makes it to adulthood, she will likely marry, get pregnant, and continue the cycle. What we really need to do is find ways to change these pervasive and damaging beliefs that males are more valuable than females. We need ways to to alter all the big and little cultural practices and ideologies that elevate one sex over the other. We need to attack the root of the problem  if we ever truly want to solve this.

Ultimately, what we really need to do is to find a way to make the world safer and better for all women, so that female children are no longer viewed as a curse. Because they’re not a curse; they, like male children, are a gift.

8 Responses to “Female Feticide Is Not A Thing”

  1. Sara November 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    I’m sorry to put this here, but I read your blog daily and love it. I was given a Sunshine Award and I’m passing it onto you because I love your blog! Here’s a link. http://TINYURL.COM/C58YC9E If it’s too personal or not your cup of tea, I totally understand!

  2. Leopard [Crates and Ribbons] December 1, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    This is excellent!

  3. Katharine December 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    This is all clearly true.

    But I’m going to play one devil’s advocate card here, because I think it merits consideration. I feel like this essay supports the idea that a fetus’ biological sex should be revealed to its parents before it is born – what if we were able to pass a law forbidding ultrasound technicians from discussing sex at all with parents? somehow, people survived for bazillions of years not know what sex of baby was going to pop out, and they came out ok – ok in the relative sense, I suppose, since baby girls born in a time before ultrasounds didn’t fare as well, certainly, but is there any relationship between knowing what the sex of your baby will be and the gains of feminism? No. Is there any value for anyone in knowing the biological sex (ASSUMED biological sex – everyone has heard the “they told me at 36 weeks I was having a girl, and low and behold, it was a boy!” stories)?

    What if we were able to bring all babies into the world without their parents having decorated a nursery in gender-“appropriate” colours & themes? What if all babies came into the world without their families having imagined the gender-“appropriate” careers they might have, what toys they might want, what clothes they might want to wear? What if we could put off that gendering just 9 months longer? What if?

    Certainly, no one is going to be able stop the splayed-leg fetuses with penises from revealing themselves, but what if that was just the assumption of un-scientifically-educated parents, and not a matter of a medical assertion by an ultrasound technician? Would we have a society that valued babies for being babies, not for being baby girls or baby boys?

    • bellejarblog December 5, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

      I am totally behind not knowing the sex of your baby. We chose not to find out the sex, and I loved hearing the doctor say, “it’s a boy!” when Theo was born. I would much rather have that moment than find out during an ultrasound. I also think that learning the sex before birth adds to problems like gendered baby clothing, etc. (seriously, I had SUCH A HARD TIME finding unisex clothing).

      I guess the thing is that people really want to know. And if we pass laws that say, no, you can’t know, because you might abort based on the sex of the baby, then that’s also tantamount to saying that if women know the sex, they are more likely to make a “bad” choice. And, again, I don’t think that there’s a hierarchy of abortions, and although I hate the idea that people abort because of the sex of the baby, I think that women should still be allowed that choice. I guess that’s where I see feminism coming into it?

      I dunno. I guess it’s complicated. I would totally be on board with a world where no one knows their kid’s sex before birth, but I know that it’s a big deal for a lot of people.

  4. Belinda September 20, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    Thanks for finally talking about >Female Feticide Is Nott A Thikng | The Belle Jar
    <Liked it!

  5. sellmaeth November 22, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

    I recently read a book about the missing women in India. The book suggested that making it illegal for clinics to tell women about the sex of their child would be (part of) a solution.

    Even more recently, though, I read a blog post about how many girls in India die (i.e. are murdered) before their eleventh birthday.
    You’re totally right, limiting a pregnant woman’s knowledge doesn’t achieve anything other than more suffering for both the woman and her unwanted daughters.


  1. Sunshine Award: A Sense Of Community And Fun With A Little Bit Of Circle Jerking Thrown In. « Project Sara - November 29, 2012

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