Jan 18, 2012 – 9:53 AM ET
In 1994, I had three papers accepted for the Canadian Bioethics Society’s conference in Ottawa, which I duly attended. One of the papers addressed some ethical concerns raised by the practice of abortion on the basis of sex selection. The Royal Commission on Reproductive Technologies had just issued its report, and Dr. Patricia Baird, a geneticist on the commission, was the moderator of the session in which I delivered that particular paper. Not too many people showed much interest, except for one woman who announced during the question period that I had made her “very angry.” The reason? I think it was because I was clearly against the ethics of “choice,” specifically where aborting babies is concerned. That means I am against the abortion of all babies, although the situation I was describing was one in which mainly female babies are aborted.
I could not understand then, and do not understand now, how one can hold “choice” as an ethical position, but attempt to limit it in this particular circumstance. It is appalling that women can even think of aborting their own child simply on account of its gender. Logically, though, for those who espouse “choice,” why is this situation different? I am fairly sure that is what made the woman listening to my paper unhappy. She never did explain exactly what part of my argument made her angry. I believe it was because she would be hard pressed to do so logically, and fell back on an emotional response.
Why did I choose that topic in 1994? At the time, information was coming in from New York State indicating some physicians would test fetuses, and perform abortions for women if the fetus were shown to be a girl. The testing may not have been as accurate then as it is now, but nevertheless the practice existed. My paper was evidence-based, and I thought it important to bring this sort of unethical use of techniques and technology into the open. At that time, most of the clients involved seemed to come from countries where male children are preferred.
After the session, someone was talking to Dr. Baird about the possibility of abortion on the basis of sex-selection in Canada. She argued that it would never happen here. Indeed, to its credit, that was one type of behavior the Royal Commission condemned. I did not take up the point with her at the time – I had had my twenty or thirty minutes to present my side of the coin – but I thought: “Pretty naive to think this type of practice will not develop in this country, too.” We have, after all, other examples. IVF is thought by many to be a safe and ethical way to create babies. But sometimes several fetuses develop in the womb. What to do? Selective reduction: choose which babies to eliminate. Yes, the couple is desperate to have a child. No, the couple is not open to having more than the number they want. “Choice” becomes the watchword once again, abortions take place, and those of us with ethical concerns continue to point out and regret the harm that is being done to otherwise perfect, tiny, human beings.
And now, in 2012, the practice of abortion on the basis of sex is being challenged by some medical practitioners, and I am relieved to hear it. It has always seemed obvious to me that if there were a technique that could tell parents the gender of their baby in the womb, then all sorts of reasons could be found to abort: I already have a son: now I want a daughter, or vice versa. I don’t want girls at all, or vice versa. In China, when the one-child policy was being strictly enforced, if the first baby proved to be a girl, she was often aborted. The whole policy, of course, is so against the usual development of human nature that it is bound to fail, and the noticeable lack of girls in China will surely lead to some strange social consequences.