Monday, 23 June 2008

More on abortion - the female foeticide objection

Cross posted on In a Strange Land

Another instalment in what will be three posts following up objections to my original post on abortion. I'm rather wimpily leaving the one on disabilities until the last, not because I'm not sure about what I want to say, but because I want to think a bit more about how to say it. Meanwhile, I want to tackle the issue of female foeticide.

I'm going to use the term 'female foeticide' to refer to the practice of aborting female fetuses because the parents would prefer to have a boy. The term is loaded; it carries connotations of 'homicide', and that carried connotations of moral wrongdoing. So I am, as it were, helping myself to some moral disapproval before I have even made a case for it. However, please accept it as shorthand for "the practice of aborting female fetuses because the parents would prefer to have a boy."

Here's the issue that was raised.

"But since Deborah has poked her head in, I'd love to get a feminist perspective on abortion being used to get rid of 'useless' and unwanted girls." (Raised here.)

I want to unpack this a little, putting it in a form that I think may go beyond what the original questioner meant, but nevertheless a form that I think cuts to the heart of the question.

(1) Feminists support abortion on demand.
(2) Feminists decry the abortion of female fetuses.
(3) These two positions are inconsistent.

And therefore, feminists should either abandon (1), or abandon (2), or abandon feminism.

I do not think at all that my interlocutor was pushing this sort of position. Nevertheless, he was raising a serious point, viz, that at face value, there seems to be a serious issue for feminists who on the one hand support abortion on demand, but on the other, reject the abortion of female fetuses because the fetuses are one gender (female) rather than another.

As a feminist, I hold both (1) and (2), and I do not think these positions are inconsistent.

First, I do not think any individual abortion is inherently morally impermissible. That's the conclusion I reached in my first post. And it's one of the major reasons that I support (1). Very roughly, there are good reasons to support the availability of abortion on demand, such as this, and the increased autonomy for women (as I argued in my original post about 2/3 of the way through).

However in that original post, I also argued that we can make moral judgements about people who have serial abortions. Not because of each abortion per se, but because they care so little about taking care of themselves and taking care of the beginnings of life, that they are negligent. This is the moral error they fall into. As I said earlier:

it isn’t the actual abortion that is the problem; it is being flippant and casual about the beginnings and endings of life that matters.

I think we can make the same sort of judgement about female foeticide. Female fetuses are aborted in alarming numbers in some countries (notably India and China) because girls are not valued as highly as boys. In fact, girls are disvalued, and it is regarded as bad fortune to bear a daughter, and good fortune to bear a son. This is no doubt the case for cultural and financial reasons; in China, sons traditionally look after their parents, while daughters end up joining another family, and looking after the elderly people in that family, and in India, parents must pay heavy dowries when their daughters marry. Girls are a financial liability there. Other cultures have strong male preference too - see for example, Stef's post about male preference in South Korea.

So the problem with female foeticide is not the abortions themselves, but the fact that they are brought about because girls and women are not valued, are thought to be lesser beings. The moral failing in the case of female foeticide is to do with the lesser valuation placed on women and girls. As for how to fix the problem? Danielle hits the nail on the head when she says:

If you're functioning within a society in which women are consistently undervalued, then individual actions like sex-selection abortions do, as B says, end up having a societal cost - and a bias. If you change the 'value' of women, you change the abortion patterns. Easier said than done, of course.


Anonymous said...

So let me get this clear - you would be comfortable with somebody making a moral judgement on a young woman who has a series of abortions? Isn't that blaming the victim?

Anonymous said...

This is inconsistent with the argument that 'women should be trusted to make their own decisions'. You do not respect the decisions of Chinese and Indian women. If this is unacceptable to you, you need a different argument justifying the immorality of female foeticide. Then again, you could always resort to the arguments George Bush used in attempt to justify the imposition of 'democracy' on sovereign nations. They usually amount to 'I know better than you do what is best for you'--just the argument pro-choice people despise when used against abortion.

And, by the way, the term 'homicide' carries no moral meaning. Is is used to refer to the killing of one human being by another. 'Murder', however, is a moral/legal term, referring to wrongful killing.

Tui said...

lol, no, Anonymous - read again. She said that in order to change the pattern of female foeticide, you need to change the value of women in a culture, not make judgements on the individual women and families who make those decisions.

Anonymous said...

Oh ok, so the argument, having read it again, is 'societies shouldn't be trusted to choose their own values'. Still kind of inconsistent with the claim that 'women should be trusted to make their own decisions'.

Reject Cultural Relativism but support subjectivism (moral autonomy). How is this consistent?

There's a very strong thread through these posts of 'we should have moral autonomy--but only as long as you agree with my moral values'.