Late last month a bill that sought to make it a crime to perform or obtain a sex-selective abortion failed to pass a House vote. This is no surprise. The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, sponsored by Representative Trent Franks, Republican of Arizona, required a two-thirds majority to pass, and was seen by some as primarily an attempt during an election season to force Democrats to take a public stand on a divisive issue. In short, it was meant to make politicians uncomfortable and make voters take notice. But even though the bill may have been motivated by politics as well as ethics, it highlights one of the moral complications surrounding abortion that many pro-choice advocates would prefer to ignore: gender selection.
In 2008 The Los Angeles Times reported on a growing market for at-home genetic testing. In the article, women described their dissatisfaction over the inaccuracy of tests that claimed to determine the gender of a fetus as early as five weeks into a pregnancy. Some women who took the test were simply curious. Others were concerned about potential for diseases in one gender. Others acknowledged that some women might abort a child after learning the results.
Unfortunately, that article focused less on ethics than on customer satisfaction. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2011, however, found that some at-home gender tests were 99 percent accurate if conducted after seven weeks of gestation. Other tests were found by two studies to be 90 percent accurate after 10 weeks gestation. The lack of medical oversight and advice in the use of these tests is troubling, but the moral implications are even more so.
Opponents of the Franks bill pointed out that the vast majority of abortions in the United States are performed before doctors can accurately determine the gender of a fetus. Most ultrasounds cannot accurately predict the gender of a fetus until 12 or 13 weeks. Most sex-selective abortions in the United States are obtained by a small number of women who have emigrated from countries where the practice, well-documented, is more common, like China, India and South Korea. An article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 found that among parents who had emigrated from these countries to the United States and who had already given birth to two girls, the boy-girl ratio increased from 1.05 boys to 1 girl to 1.5 to 1 for the third pregnancy. This, the study stated, was evidence of sex-selection. The size of the group in question may be too small to influence legislation, but size does not determine the morality of the practice.
Moral decisions are not made in a vacuum. In the countries in which sex-selective abortions are most prevalent, females face many gender inequalities. For this reason some makers of at-home gender testing refuse to sell the product in China or India. The best remedy is respect for the dignity of women, which affords them equal educational, familial and economic opportunity. Addressing the problem of gender equality requires systemic change and a recognition of the fact that investing in women’s lives promotes sustainable development, according to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But, as Pope Paul VI stated in “Populorum Progressio,” authentic development “cannot be restricted to economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each [person] and of the whole [person].” It is difficult to convince some societies of the value of an unborn girl, if the society does not see the inherent worth of a woman.
American society, while far from perfect in this respect, has made great strides in gender equality, from women’s education to employment. But our society may be at a crossroads. The increased accuracy of at-home tests for gender selection could have grave consequences. For the implication seems to be that foreknowledge would result in more sex-selective abortions in the United States. Some makers of the at-home tests say they have denied testing for customers who have expressed a desire to abort a child because of gender. But what about those couples who never mention it? One company requires users to sign a waiver saying they will not use the test for sex-selection, but enforcement is difficult. Nor are the tests regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Without regulation, tacit acceptance of abortion for any and all motivations becomes the societal norm. Preventing abortion solely for gender selection is an area on which a wide consensus could be built in the United States. The overemphasis on “choice” in this case undermines decades of society’s efforts to promote gender equality, including the efforts of many feminists. One need not profess the Catholic faith to see the backward direction of abortion for gender-selection.