The uncomfortable consequences of choice

Official analysis of birth statistics has added further evidence that illegal abortions on grounds of gender are taking place in the UK, according to the Telegraph‘s front-page story.

It was already known that sex-selection abortions (mostly of girls, within some immigrant communities which regard girls of less valgendercidecurrentcoverusue than boys) have been taking place, because the same newspaper last year secretly filmed doctors agreeing to perform them. Now government statistics have backed it up.

In answer to a parliamentary question by the Catholic pro-life peer Lord Alton, a health minister, Earl Howe, said:

While the overall United Kingdom birth ratio is within normal limits, analysis of birth data for the calendar years from 2007 to 2011 has found the gender ratios at birth vary by mothers’ country of birth. For the majority of groups, this variation is the result of small numbers of births and does not persist between years. However, for a very small number of countries of birth there are indications that birth ratios may differ from the UK as a whole and potentially fall outside of the range considered possible without intervention.

A study by Oxford University academics has previously found evidence that pointed to Indian women in Britain were terminating more female than male unborn babies between 1990 and 2005. In 2007, the BBC reported that a study found 1,500 girls “missing” from the birth statistics of England and Wales. (In India and China, many thousands of unborn girls go “missing”).

A Department of Health spokesman says any abortion based on sex selection is “illegal and morally wrong”.

It certainly is illegal under the 1967 Abortion Act. What is less clear is why it is morally wrong to choose to abort for this, but not other, ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ reasons.

For an Indian woman to give birth to too many daughters might bring more shame and stigma on her head than a British woman with an unplanned pregnancy.

The whole basis of a liberal abortion law such as that of the UK is essentially a eugenic one: some births are “desirable”, others “unwanted” or “unplanned”. It must seem strange to an Indian woman to hear from a British woman that she terminated her pregnancy because the child was “unwanted”. Yet when the Indian woman wants an abortion because she does not want more girls, she is told it is morally wrong and illegal.

Presumably she quickly learns not to give this as a reason — and to cite the kind of reasons given every day by women to their doctors. So the real scale of this gendercide is inevitably going to remain hidden — especially as Lord Howe refuses Lord Alton’s request for data to be collected on the sex of unborn babies at the time of abortion — although he might be reconsidering this.

This is an area where the ethic of autonomy clashes with the ethic of equality — presenting, as Cristina Odone points out, a real challenge to feminists for whom “the right to choose” is axiomatic.

As Lord Alton says: “Abortion has become so routine in Britain with 600 taking place every day that people have accepted the mantra that it’s just a matter of choice.”

And you can see why. Once you abandon the idea of the intrinsic value of every human being, whatever its gender or eye colour or physical appearance, attempts to draw the line seem quite arbitrary.

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