The complications of race-specific attacks aside, the central argument of the mainline reproductive rights movement has been that the right to continue or terminate a pregnancy is a "choice." An implicit, and often times stated, contention that all choices women make about their bodies and reproduction are private, to be made without state interest.
But now our slogans about individual rights -- "my child, my choice" -- have been appropriated as ad copy for the sex-selective clinics we find troubling. Even if people use new technologies to select for girls, and evidence suggests Caucasian women do, they apply the notion of "choice" to germinate restrictive notions of gender. When we fought for autonomy, this did not mean the right to engineer your own namesake or a pinkalicious-shopping buddy. What it meant was a right for women to define who they were and wanted to be on their own terms, on their own timeline.
Research shows that the language of "choice" has left audiences cold. Studies in cognitive linguistics, psychology, and even marketing contend this framework suggests action quickly considered and of little consequence -- hardly a rhetorical counterweight to "life" or apt description of how most women undertake this decision.
But the concept of choice no longer fits either. Not only did we not want government out when it comes to financial assistance to access the abortion, we're not vying for a mandate that says anything goes in the world of parenting.
Sex selection forces us to take stock of what we believe and start saying it. Here is our chance to leave behind the tired, consumer-led, conversation. "My choice," or even "my child," never described our community-supported ideals of child rearing. We must move from choice and it's inevitable follow-up -- "What kind of child do I want to have?" -- to the more meaningful question: "What kind of parent do I want to become?"
We need frank public discussion about parenting boys and girls and the often-unconscious biases we all have about gender and children. This is long overdue but is only one element of the efforts required to unseat the calcified ideas about sex and gender that permeates our society, across all races and ethnic groups.
We must also defeat discriminatory laws like the one up for vote today in the House. It is a bitter irony that regressive legislation like the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act actually reinforces why it's disadvantageous to be a woman, especially a woman of color. These kinds of policies are part of a culture that makes sex selection a logical choice for women hoping to keep daughters from a sexist, repressive world that seeks only to limit who they are and what they are allowed to do.
Instead of curbing women's rights, our research specifically in South Asian American communities suggests the way to undo son preference is to address old assumptions. This would require raising awareness about, and also helping to hasten the dramatic changes underway in gender roles. Girls and women are assuming many of the roles only men once played, and men and boys can play and are now fulfilling many of the roles which have been considered a woman's domain. In the South Asian diaspora community, for example, boys aren't always staying around to take care of aging parents, girls are increasingly staying attached to their maternal families, and investment in girls' education is paying off richly. But to end son preference, old beliefs and practices, laws and policies, need to catch up to the new reality, both in the United States and in South Asia. Empowering families, communities, and societies to root out biases and alter their own behaviors without shaming, blaming, or curtailing the rights of women is our only real hope of tackling this issue.
A version of this article was first published at RH Reality Check.