The current (16 January 2012) edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal is raising some eyebrows on account of an editorial which draws attention to the practice of sex-selective abortions in Canada. It has been known for some time that girls are killed more often than boys. The problem is a global one, with China and India being jurisdictions of particular concern. The CMAJ editorial notes the evidence that some immigrants to Canada have brought this practice with them:
Research in Canada has found the strongest evidence of sex selection at higher parities if previous children were girls among Asians — that is people from India, China, Korea, Vietnam and Philippines. What this means is that many couples who have two daughters and no son selectively get rid of female fetuses until they can ensure that their third-born child is a boy.
What is most surprising about this editorial — and most encouraging too — is that it actually calls for action to prevent such abortions from taking place. Abortion exists in a legal vacuum in Canada — we have no law whatsoever on the matter — and experience has shown that legislative limits are not politically feasible at the present time. But the editorial makes the brilliant proposal that our medical regulatory bodies could nonetheless institute “best practices” which would tend to reduce the rate of sex-selective abortions:
The colleges need to rule that a health care professional should not reveal the sex of the fetus to any woman before, say, 30 weeks of pregnancy because such information is medically irrelevant and in some instances harmful. Doing so should be deemed contrary to good medical practice. Such clear direction from regulatory bodies would be the most important step toward curbing female feticide in Canada.
This is, as I said, a tremendously positive thing to hear, but it is also tremendously puzzling. If it is true, as we are always being told, that a woman has the right to abort her baby, then why does she not have the right to abort her baby girl? And how exactly is it that a fetus, just because it is female, somehow makes a moral claim on us that males do not? And if there are good reasons to prevent the abortion of a female child, could there not also be good reasons to prevent the abortion of, say, a Down Syndrome child, or even just a plain old inconvenient child? Why is “If you don’t like sex-selective abortions, don’t have one” not an adequate response to this problem? It really gets one thinking.
What is most interesting about this affair is that the pro-choice side has usually fallen back on an absolutist position: any restrictions on abortion are to be rejected. Time and again, even proposals for mild policy changes that would tend to protect unborn children have been rejected as intolerable. That a proposal like this, which breaches that position in a fairly significant way, and undermines its logic, has been floated from a flagship medical journal is more than a little shocking, but also very welcome. Perhaps it will open the door to a serious conversation about a matter of great importance.