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.