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May 10, 2004



I'm so impressed. Any quibble I have is so minor it's lost in my overall admiration of the way you've explored this issue.


Amen, amen, Hugo. Well said. I am pro-choice, and I still agree with your disappointment that NOW and the Feminist Majority mainly focus on abortion rights. There is so much more to being a woman (as you have covered here) than her right to have an abortion. I think abortion rights are important, but there are MANY more issues to be focused on as far as women's rights are concerned. Body image and our culture's beauty obsession have always fascinated me, and are the main reasons I am a feminist.

Thanks for your great posts, Hugo!

Jonathan Dresner

Nice try, Hugo: good ideas, and nicely written. But I'm gonna quibble, anyway:

The "silence is deafening" argument on sex-selection abortion in India, China, inter alia, is a red herring and unfair. The organizations you cited are American organizations, with little or no involvement in international affairs, foreign policy, etc. The only real concern I've ever seen expressed over sex-selection abortion is from internationally-minded feminists (and the odd demographer), and regional experts employing feminist analysis who connect the practice to enduring pre-modern patriarchal traditions which contributed to lower female survival rates (either deliberate infanticide or neglect leading to higher childhood mortality rates), including dowry, patrilineal inheritance, and the general devaluation of female labor and lives. There were differential survival rates for women well before medical abortion (and ultrasound, by the way, which is actually the crucial technology in sex-selection abortion), though the advance in technology has intensified the issue, as it has so many others.

If abortion were made entirely illegal (and by the way, sex-selection abortion is, I'm pretty sure, technically illegal in at least one of those countries), those highly patriarchal societies would develop underground medical systems, or just intensify the existing violence against adult women who bear female children.


You're correct that it is illegal in India.

Though female infanticide predates modern abortion in these countries, the fact remains that it has become a preferred and popular method of terminating the lives of healthy baby girls. In some instances, women themselves are clearly choosing to have their own daughters killed. The problem for Western feminists lies in the fact that ideologically, for abortion to be legal, the fetus can't be a person. Thus sex-selective abortion cannot logically be of great concern -- because to bemoan its existence is to veer close to assigning personhood to the fetus (which is to hand pro-lifers the trump card we are asking for).

It is easier to terminate a fetus in a womb than to smother a newborn, I assume. Though female infanticide has -- tragically -- existed for a very long time, abortion (and yes, ultrasound tecnology) have made it far easier to be carried out far earlier in life. And the very right that some women in this country want so badly is -- undeniably -- taking predominantly female lives in India and China.

Making abortion illegal is never a solution in and of itself. Indeed, like Feminists for Life, I believe a transformation of society to be more woman and child friendly is the key first step to ending abortion. And that involves empowering women sexually and culturally.

Jonathan Dresner

I disagree that problematizing sex-selection abortion requires problematizing abortion: it requires problematizing patriarchal values and decision-making (even by women). I think we're pretty much in agreement with that.

The "you can't be concerned about abortion without being against abortion, at least implicitly" is a logical flaw, the exact name of which I can't come up with at the moment, and a rhetorical trick rather than a substantive point, which serves to reinforce rather than bridge the gap between feminists of differing opinions on abortion but similar opinions on women's health and limited choices.


Indeed, it is a rhetorical trick. But women who support abortion support it because it they believe in the inviolability of women's choices. They don't think that any abortion, chosen by a woman, could be a "bad choice". Indeed, pro-choice rhetoric never admits that there are BAD choices made by women -- because the highest good is the preservation of choice.

Thus if a woman CHOOSES to abort her daughter because of patriarchy, how exactly is that CHOICE less virtuous than CHOOSING to abort her unborn child because she doesn't want the responsibility of motherhood yet? I don't think pro-choice rhetoric is willing to start to attach moral value to individual choices -- though they ought to.


Well, Jonathan has infallibly picked on the one thing in the post I would have quibbled with.

The problem comes with pretending these women have a fully informed 'choice' when they live in a society where a male child is the only choice of, so to speak, choice.

Abortion isn't the problem. Cultural bias against females is the problem. These women abort female fetuses (or drop their female children on a hillside to die after birth) because they see being female as undesirable.

If you outlaw abortion, you'll just increase the number of newborn baby girls crying their lives out alone and unloved for the meagre hours that they survive. I am troubled that you consider this a preferable alternative to an abortion.


I should have added that by wanting to outlaw abortion, it feels to me once again that you're fixated on the symptom and ignoring the disease.

Jonathan Dresner

Hugo: The reason the pro-choice rhetorical position is so rigid is that the anti-choice movement (which I would distinguish from a genuinely pro-life position) takes every opportunity to turn reservations about abortion into legal restrictions on abortion, rather than programs or policies or values that would reduce the number of abortions by non-coercive means. I think there's plenty of responsibility (blame, if you like) to go around on this one.

Your question about whether one abortion can be considered "better" than another is, of course, only really meaningful if you allow that abortion might indeed be justified by circumstances, and I have not yet seen you make that allowance anywhere.


I certainly won't defend the tactics used by my brethren in most of the pro-life movement. Indeed, the best way to reduce abortion is to make abortion unthinkable rather than illegal by changing behavior and culture in ways that empower women both to refuse unwanted sex and to raise those children conceived as a result of wanted sex. This is where the pro-life left breaks from the pro-life right.

But when it comes to legal restrictions on abortion, I support a "both/and" policy. I want to reduce abortion from both ends by restricting access (yes indeed), but also -- and perhaps more crucially -- by providing resources to women to enable them to choose life for their babies. I won't accept a forced "either/or".


Jonathan: "anti-choice?" Give me a break. People who oppose abortion are opposed to it because it's abortion; they're not philosophically opposed to choice, per se. Either call both side by their preferred names (pro-choice vs. pro-life), or label both according to some neutral criteria, such as pro-abortion vs. anti-abortion, or abortions rights advocate vs. abortion rights opponent. That's the issue - abortion. Not a philosophical discussion over whether or not choice is generally a good or bad thing.

"Anti-choice," indeed. Might as well accuse the pro-abortionists of being "anti-life" or "pro-death."


Gosh, XRLQ, we agree again. Stop the presses.


I never thought we'd been silent on the way abortion is used in China. But there's more to it than that. China is a country in which the state has the right to control people's reproduction - some countries prohibit abortion, but China makes it mandatory after two children. It's the same issue: The state has no right to compel reproductive choices.


No, Avedon, it's not the same issue at all, nor even close. At best, it implicates ONE of the two principles at issue here. As the asymmetrical terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" imply, the abortion debate in the free world centers around two issues: life and choice. Nearly everyone agrees that both life and choice are generally good things; the question is what to do when they conflict. In this instance, some err on the side of choice; they are "pro-choice." Others prefer to err on the side of life; they are called "pro-life."

In fact, forced abortions in China are an excellent example of how ridiculous (if not libelous) the phrase "anti-choice" is. If anyone involved in the abortion debate were truly "anti-choice," they would not have any objection to forced abortions. Just so you know, they do.


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