Is sex-selective abortion morally acceptable?

Is sex-selective abortion morally acceptable?


Heather Widdows, Professor of Global Ethics, University of Birmingham

First it is important to clarify that it is ‘sex-selective’ abortion that is in question not abortion in general. The two issues should not be confused. Abortion is a basic right, a right to bodily integrity that all non-slave men take for granted: a right not to have one’s body invaded against one’s will. However, while there is a right not to have a child – not to be pregnant, not to give birth and not to be a parent – this right does not extend to being able to choose the type of child one has. This is true of being able to select sex, and also other ‘social traits’, when or if selection for such traits becomes possible; including sexual orientation and physical traits (such as, height, eye-colour, hair colour and intellect). This may sound far fetched but a quick look at the selection of sperm and egg donors suggests that recipients already seek to choose certain physical and intellectual traits, and while sexual orientation is not possible to select for, there are already debates about whether if it were it should be permitted.

There are a number of reasons which mean that we should NOT allow selection of types of children on grounds of preference alone (there are legitimate other grounds, such as, psychological harm to the mother, or to avoid illness in the child).

First, to be able to choose sex is ‘commodifying’ – it makes people into things. The tendency to commodify people is increasing in the contemporary market context. Bodies are more and more viewed as objects to be moulded and shaped (by diet, exercise and surgery) and there is a danger that this extends to children – who can be viewed as accessories and extensions of the self.

Second, to make choices before birth, is to have particular expectations about what or who the child will be. This changes the relationship between parent and child from one of ‘gift’ to one of ‘contract’. While parents always have expectations and hopes for their children – and might even be disappointed – the ideal that we should love our children whatever they are like and whoever they are is too important an ideal to erode by making children into types which we can choose. To reject a child because it is not a child of the desired sex – for purely social reasons – moves too far towards a contractual model of the parent/child relationship.

Third, the claim that these are ‘individual’ choices which only affect the particular family is just not true. What is permitted and seen as socially acceptable affects everyone. If it is normal to have expectations – and ones which you expect to be met, such as to have a child of a certain sex or with certain traits – this is not ‘individual’, but ‘social’. Norms are social and cultural and shared. If abortion for sex selection becomes normal and acceptable then views of all children will be affected – children in general will be commodified – as children will become the types of things which parents can choose rather than simply accept.

Fourth, discrimination is always a possibility if the selection of sex is permitted for social reasons. The fact that there might not be a strong preference for sex of a certain type in the UK is not a reason to be complacent. There may not be a strong preference in part because current norms strongly promote and reinforce the view that children should be valued irrespective of their sex. Generally it’s not thought to be ok for pregnant women to say ‘I don’t want a girl/boy’. However, if sex selection by abortion (or by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) were ‘normal’ this might no longer be the case. As stated above what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ is changed as practices change. Therefore, if it is a good thing that currently all children are seen as valuable we should endorse practices which promote this and encourage it to continue.

Fifth, it is no longer the case that one can ignore the global situation or the norms of different cultures. In a multicultural society there are likely to be some groups in the UK who value one sex over another – so even if the overall figures show no strong preference this does not mean there is no discrimination. If sex selection is permitted in the UK people will travel to the UK to make use of this service. Does the UK wish to be a destination for social abortion of this type?

While brief these arguments show that ‘choosing sex’ (or other types of children) should not be permitted and that it is not an individual or trivial choice, but a social choice. Permitting sex selection would affect everyone, as it would impact upon our common views and expectations of children and not just those families who actually take this option. However, while it is clear that abortion to select sex on purely social grounds should not be permitted policing this is more problematic – for instance, should all sex tests be banned? But working out how to do something is a different debate from what should be done and an issue for another day.

For more detail of this argument see: Persons and Their Parts: New Reproductive Technologies and Risks of Commodification in Health Care Analysis (2009) 17, 36-46.

Professor Heather Widdows at the University of Birmingham