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When Choice Becomes Discrimination

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Americans, pro-life and pro-choice alike, have spoken out against pre-natal sex selection as a form of discrimination and coercion. In August 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an avowed “pro-choice” feminist and recipient of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award, publicly opposed the practice of sex-selective abortion in India and China. The 2006 Zogby Poll found that 86% of all Americans support bans on sex-selective abortion. Oklahoma passed such a ban in 2009 with a bi-partisan vote of 93-4 in the House and 34-10 in the Senate. In March 2010, a Georgia House Committee passed the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act, a bill also intended to ban sex-selective abortions.

Thus, it is apparent that even many who want abortion to remain legal in the US do not want it to be legal for any purpose or in any circumstance. This is because they recognize the injustice of pre-natal sex selection, especially for women.

In sex-selective abortion, unborn babies are aborted based on their sex. Similarly, in sex-selective IVF, doctors create embryos via IVF and then discard some based on their sex. Reports indicate that, in both types of pre-natal sex selection, the babies and embryos destroyed are most often females destroyed solely because they are female.

Yet, so-called “reproductive rights” groups are reluctant to oppose sex selection when the mother’s choice is in play. If pressed, they admit that sex-selective abortion or IVF is regrettable whether or not the mother is acting under coercion. In practice, however, these groups not only do little to ensure that pre-natal sex selection never happens in the US, but they oppose efforts that would achieve that end.

To them, “reproductive justice” is about a woman’s unrestricted right to choose, even when that choice amounts to sexual discrimination.

The Economist, in March 2010, reported on widespread “gendercide” in Asian countries.[1] However, we do not often hear about elective pre-natal sex selection taking place in the US.

But the evidence shows that it does. In his 2004 paper “The Global War against Baby Girls”, social scientist Nicholas Eberstadt reported unnatural sex ratios and death rates, pointing to a preference for boys, in countries all over the world including the US, particularly in our Asian-American populations.[2] In 2008, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that used 2000 US Census data to calculate the sex ratios of children born to Chinese, Korean, and Asian parents.[3] Those ratios demonstrated a preference for sons, indicating the use of male-biased “sex selection, most likely at the pre-natal stage.”

Jeffrey Steinberg’s The Fertility Institutes is a fertility clinic that offers “virtually 100% accuracy” in sex-selective IVF, promising that, by first screening the unimplanted embryos and then implanting only the desired sex, “your next child will be the sex of your choice.”[4] While they boast a diverse clientele, they often market their services to Asian couples whose cultures are traditionally gender-biased.

Nevertheless, “reproductive rights” groups have repeatedly thwarted efforts to ban pre-natal sex selection in the US. After Oklahoma’s law took effect, the Center for Reproductive Rights immediately attacked it as a restrictive and burdensome measure infringing on a woman’s right to abortion.[5] SisterSong and others have released similar statements condemning the Georgia bill as a “deceptive” attempt to unjustly restrict women’s access to abortion.[6]

Pre-natal and pre-implantation technologies, including at-home sex-identification tests, make it relatively easy for couples to learn the sex of their babies or embryos. The same doctor who provides a couple with genetic information about their baby or embryos, however, also leaves open the option of destroying them if they are not the couple’s desired sex. Pro-choice physicians may not universally support Steinberg’s brazen marketing of his clinic’s sex selection service. Yet most are reluctant even to ask couples why they are choosing to discard their embryos or abort their babies. To do so would be an invasion of privacy, abortion advocates claim, and would place an undue burden on the exercise of the woman’s procreative choice.

So-called “reproductive rights” advocates have allowed their goals of unrestricted procreative freedom, choice, and privacy to twist the true meaning of “reproductive justice” and distract them from the goal of helping women. Real reproductive justice does not make female embryos and babies pay the price for unrestricted reproductive rights. Instead, we should seek every effective measure to reduce and eliminate both coerced and elective pre-natal sex selection. We should pass bans against the taking of female lives solely because they are female.

That is real reproductive justice: helping women, born and unborn, by creating a society that upholds the fundamental equality of men and women as fellow human beings.


[1] “The war on baby girls: gendercide,” The Economist, March 4, 2010, http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15606229&source=most_commented.

[2] Nicholas Eberstadt, ed. Kenneth D. Whitehead, “The Global War against Baby Girls,” in The Church, Marriage, and the Family (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004) 341-362, presented at the 27th Annual Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, September 24-26, 2004.

[3] Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund, “Son-biased sex ratios in the 2000 United States Census,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 3, 2008, http://www.pnas.org/content/105/15/5681.full.

[4] The Fertility Institutes, http://www.fertility-docs.com/fertility_gender.phtml.

[5] The Center for Reproductive Rights, http://reproductiverights.org. A state judge eventually struck down the law in February 2010 citing technical reasons.

[6] Press Release, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, February 12, 2010, http://sistersong.net/documents/SS_HB_1155_news_release.pdf. Also, Spark Reproductive Justice Now, http://sparkrj.org. The Women’s Media Center, http://womensmediacenter.com/blog/2010/02/georgia-legislation-threatens-reproductive-rights. Change.org, http://womensrights.change.org/actions/view/stop_georgias_sex_and_race_selection_bill.


Other posts from AUL’s Reproductive Justice Series: