Neither Pro-Life Nor Pro-Choice Can Solve the Selective Abortion Crisis

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The new documentary It's a Girl highlights just how complicated the issue is.

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Shadowline Films

In the United States, the discussion of sex selection and gendercide inevitably gets pulled into the gravitational pit that is the abortion debate. Gendercide is the name given to the targeted killing of people of one gender—often used especially to refer to the targeting of baby girls by cultures that want sons. Pro-life advocates have been eager to adopt this issue, seeing it as an instance in which advocating for girls and advocating against abortion go together—thereby, in theory, undermining the pro-choice argument that pro-lifers are motivated by sexism. Last year, the House considered, and failed to pass a ban on sex-selective abortions. Even its supporters said the bill was intended not so much to regulate abortions as to paint Democrats as hypocritical in their support for women's rights.

The new documentary It's a Girl, which focuses on the gendercide of girls in India and China, also raises some uncomfortable issues for Democrats and pro-choice advocates. One of the most inspiring figures in the film, for example, is Dr. Mitu Khurana, a woman who became pregnant with twins. Her husband and mother-in-law forced her to get an ultrasound to find out the gender of the children she was carrying, even though such ultrasounds are illegal in India. When they found the babies were girls, they tried to force her to get an abortion and physically abused her in the hopes that she would miscarry. She eventually escaped her home and bore her daughters. She has spent much of the time since attempting to prosecute the doctor who gave her the ultrasound. Authorities would not help, though. Instead, she has faced death threats and rape threats and been continually harassed.

Yet, in the U.S., feminists and pro-choice advocates tend to be very uncomfortable with the kind of ultrasound bans that Khurana is fighting to have enforced. In the west, ultrasound bans look like a restriction on women's autonomy. But the argument that a woman should have the right to make her own medical choices with the help of her doctor becomes incoherent in a context where doctors are themselves an integral part of systemic violence against women.

If the documentary puts pressure on pro-choice arguments, it certainly does the same for the pro-life arguments as well. It's a Girl opens with an interview with a poor Indian woman who killed eight of her infant daughters, not through abortion, but through suffocating them after they were born. This is not uncommon. Poor women in India don't have access to ultrasounds or to abortions, for the most part. But they are desperate to avoid having daughters, not least because of the tradition of dowry, which requires expensive gifts to be given to a husband when a girl is married. Poor families cannot afford the dowries, and they cannot afford abortions. So they simply kill or abandon their female infants after birth.

Similarly, as author and activist Rita Banerji says, "Homes where there is tremendous violence inflicted on women are the same homes where violence is killing girls of five and under at an abnormal rate." Sex-selective abortion, in other words, is only one small part of widespread social violence against, and contempt for, women and women's lives. Focusing on abortion and fetuses ignores infanticide. It also ignores the murder of 100,000 grown women each year, who may be killed because they failed to give birth to sons, or because their husbands feel the dowry they received wasn't large enough.

In the film, Dr. Puneet Bedi argues that ultrasound and abortion has increased the ease of gendercide for wealthier people, and so has created unprecedented gender imbalances (140 boys to 100 girls, according to the film). Other sources, though dispute, that technology has made that much of a difference, arguing that before abortion, infanticide was simply more widespread. Either way, though, the point remains that the root of the problem is clearly not abortion per se, but widespread sexism and sexual violence—which puts pro-lifers, with their often explicitly anti-feminist rhetoric, in an awkward position.

China also presents challenges to pro-life and pro-choice factions. The one-child policy, which restricts parents to one or (in some cases if the first child is a daughter) two children. Women who want sons may seek out ultrasounds and abort their daughters in order to make sure their single child is a boy. Parents who want more children face fines, and even forced abortion or sterilization. The part of the film that came closest to making me cry was an interview with a couple who had defied the authorities and had three daughters. To escape punishment, they had had to move a thousand miles away, leaving their children with separate relatives. They now work in a factory together and send money home, unable to even see the children for whom they have exiled themselves.

From a pro-life perspective, you could condemn the use of abortion in China as a systematic government-sanctioned murder of children, especially girls. From a pro-choice perspective, you could condemn the way the government robs women of autonomy and choice, taking away their ability to make decisions about their own bodies and their own pregnancies. But really, it seems like It's a Girl doesn't buttress either pro-life or pro-choice—or, at least, doesn't buttress one at the expense of another. Instead, the film shows that children's rights rest upon women's rights and that women's rights, in turn, rest upon those of children. If women aren't respected under the law, children won't be, and if children aren't, women won't be either. That's an insight, it seems, designed to make all sides in the abortion debate uncomfortable.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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