Is sex-selective abortion morally acceptable?

Is sex-selective abortion morally acceptable?


Dr Jeremy Williams, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Philosophy, University of Birmingham 

Last week, The Daily Telegraph published details of an undercover investigation which found that some private clinics were willing to offer women a sex-selective abortion – an abortion, that is, on grounds that the fetus is of the ‘wrong’ sex. The response to this story suggests that many people share a strong intuitive belief that it is morally objectionable for a woman to terminate her pregnancy for this reason, or for the state to allow it. But can that intuition be supported with compelling arguments? For those of us with Pro-choice sympathies, at least, it is dubious that it can.

Many people assume that nobody could have a valid reason for wanting a child of a particular sex, and that any preference a parent might have must be simply self-indulgent. Not true, however: in at least some cases, a woman could have very compelling grounds for wanting, specifically, a boy or a girl. Take the woman who was sexually abused by her mother as a child, and cannot form close relationships with other females. Or the woman whose husband will leave her and her children in poverty if she has yet another girl. To these individuals, the sex of their child matters crucially.

Now to be sure, other women may prefer a son or daughter for rather more frivolous reasons. It seems unlikely that many would go as far as an abortion to gratify such a preference. But even if some would, that is not to say that the state would be morally justified in interfering with them. For on a liberal view, we should adopt a presumption in favour of individual choice, unless there are compelling grounds for restricting it. Do any such grounds exist in the case of sex-selective abortion?

At this point, of course, the Pro-life advocate will say that sex-selective abortion represents a particularly egregious injustice against the fetus – a violation of its right to life, merely on account of its sex. But people with Pro-choice beliefs typically deny that fetuses have rights – at least in the earlier stages of pregnancy. For them, any objections to sex-selective abortion must lie elsewhere.

Opponents of sex selection who do not object to abortion in general often argue, then, that the practice has negative effects on others in society. In particular, they say that it communicates a pernicious view about females, as being inferior to males. However, some disability advocates make parallel claims: they say selecting against disabled fetuses implies that disabled people are not valued by society. In both cases, the right response seems to be to say that, first, any perceived disrespect is unintended, and to emphasise, second, that allowing selective abortion is compatible with our being committed to promoting justice for women and the disabled in other respects.

Some people also worry that allowing sex-selective abortion would unbalance the sex ratio. In a country like the UK, where strong son-preference is not widespread, this fear seems overstated. But, in any case, ethicists have suggested regulatory mechanisms for addressing the problem. For instance, we might say that, if the woman’s need for a selective termination is less urgent, she can go ahead only as part of a pair with another woman, who wants to select for the opposite sex.

It is true that, in a gender equal world, demand for sex-selective abortion would be much reduced. So, if we are concerned to minimise the practice, we should accelerate progress toward such a world. However, in the meantime, banning sex-selective abortion should give us significant moral qualms. For to do so appears to be to force some people – pregnant women who need these abortions – to pay the price for our failure to create a more just society.

For a longer argument, see J. Williams, ‘Sex-Selective Abortion: A Matter of Choice’, Law and Philosophy 31.2 (2012): pp. 125-59 

Dr Jeremy Williams at The University of Birmingham