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Campaigns against sex-selective abortion are misogyny disguised as feminism

We should be asking why women feel pressured to abort female foetuses, not descending into an anti-choice panic about sex-selective abortion without evidence.

People protesting against abortion in Spain. Photo: Getty

It was last year that the Telegraph declared sex-selective abortion was available “on demand” in the UK. I spoke on a couple of radio programmes at the time, suggesting that fictional stories from undercover journalists were somewhat weaker evidence than statistics on er. . . real women and that, even if there was truth to the problem of sex-selective abortion, curtailing abortion rights was not the best response.

I’m still not convinced these were particularly radical ideas. Still, it struck me how easily a bit of calm pro-choice thought was translated into anti-human sexism. “Abortions for everyone!” “Death to all first-born females!” There is something about the issue of sex-selective abortion that allows the people arguing for the reduction of women’s rights based on largely problematic evidence to position themselves as the reasonable ones, fighting the cause of feminism.

We’re here again, as of yesterday, with the Independent running a “Lost Girls” campaign, claiming abortion is being “widely used” by some ethnic groups to avoid having daughters.

Cristina Odone, bastion of progressive pro-women thought, has asked, with all this apparently happening, where are the “so called feminists?”

Well, I guess, looking at the evidence. Education for Choice take issue with the claim that sex-selective abortion is even illegal: rape, they point out, is not direct grounds for abortion in the UK, but the emotional and physical harm that can come from it is.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s Clare Murphy states the BPAS provides a third of all abortions in the UK and they don’t have experience that women from any community are coming into their clinics, anywhere in the UK, seeking to abort girls. This is supported entirely by the statistical analysis of the Department of Health (pdf).

Still, basing anti-choice panic on criticised research by journalists is, in this debate, an improvement from rooting it in stings based on pregnant women that didn’t even exist.

That the Telegraph’s original story involved cases that had gender-based health concerns (one journalist told doctors she’d miscarried a female foetus due to abnormalities and feared this would happen again) is symbolic of the false simplicity that the self-declared “pro-women feminists” are still relying on. 

One of the Independent’s own articles points to a case where the issue is not parents not wanting a girl but that not wanting a girl had led to a risk to the mother’s life.

Karma Nirvana, based in Leeds, said it had dealt with a woman brought from Pakistan after marrying her British husband, who then underwent fertility treatment to become pregnant with a boy after she gave birth to two daughters. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her spouse and in-laws over her failure to produce a son.

(The story goes on to say that when a scan showed this woman was indeed expecting a boy – but the foetus had mild disabilities – she was forced to have an abortion.)

Two-dimensional outrage and quick fixes may soothe conservative sensibilities but as cases like this show, the women that are facing “sex-selective abortion” can be drowned in complex issues of oppression, abuse, and prejudice that are insulted by shock headlines and easy solutions.   

Anti-choice campaigners like to work in normative wishes; the women who should always cope with a baby, the disabled children who should be cared for, and now the little girls who should be wanted. It’s little use for the pregnant women that are not abstract imaginings in an ideal society but living people, with the emotional, physical, and financial vulnerabilities that comes with reality. We deal with circumstances as they are: the entrenched misogyny that sees women valued as less, and the dangers that women subsequently face. Some of those dangers, it seems, facing women carrying future girls. 

Patriarchal structures that oppress women, to some degree in all communities, are what need to be dealt with. The violence, the isolation, the abuse, the discrimination. It’s harder than a cry to change medical rights and not tell pregnant women whether they’re carrying a girl; it doesn’t have the comfort of the easy morality and quick fixes campaigns like the Independent’s create. Depriving women of information concerning their own pregnancy empowers them. Forcing them to give birth to a child that their family reject, and greet with violence, would protect them. Reducing their reproductive rights is what will help make them become more equal in society.  

We should be very careful of anyone peddling such lines, of using sex-selective abortion, in all its confused evidence and reductive simplicity, to further their own agenda. It is misogyny in feminist clothing. Anti-choice campaigners who cling to these stories are the most dangerous; trying to chip at women’s rights whilst positioning themselves as our saviours. If there’s any doubt who the “pro-women” feminists are, it’s the ones who know equality for women will never be achieved by removing women’s rights.