Are abortion views sexist?

Indian girls are born on 500,000 fewer occasions per year than Indian boys (2006).(Photo: Steve Evans)

Indian girls are born on 500,000 fewer occasions per year than Indian boys (2006).(Photo: Steve Evans)

Abortion isn’t too bad according to half of Americans, and most of liberals and the irreligious and that bunch. The fetus never really got as far as being a child, and virtually nobody thinks failing to have children is as bad as murder.

Selective abortion of female fetuses, on the other hand, is horrific according to both ends of the ideological spectrum. And the reasons given are almost always to do with it being  bad for the females who aren’t born. It’s “discrimination“, a “gross violation of women’s rights“, “an extreme manifestation of violence against women” . As my pro-choice friend (among others) complains, ‘There are all these females who should exist and are missing!’

So confirmed females have a right to exist if they are conceived, and have suffered a grave loss if they cease to be, but fetuses who might be male may as well not exist? This is either hypocritical or extremely sexist. Why are the same people adamant about both views often?

They both appear to be applications of general pro-female sympathy. When supporting the pro-choice side, the concern is for a woman’s rights over her own body. When condemning gender-specific abortion, the concern is for the females who won’t be born. Siding with the females becomes complicated when females are conspicuous as aborters one day and abortees the next. So it looks like this isn’t hypocrisy via accidental oversight, but policy choice biased by sympathies to a specific gender. If ‘whether an aborted fetus has been done a terrible wrong’ were the important point, we should expect to see more consistency on that.

When I asked about this previously my friend suggested that the motivations were importantly different in the two cases. Aborting someone because they are female is wrong. Aborting someone because you don’t want to look after them is compassionate. This doesn’t apply here, even if it were true. Gender specific abortions are common for economic and other pragmatic reasons too, not because people hate females especially. Moreover one could argue consistently that gender specific abortions are bad because they harm to others who do exist, such as the males who will go lonely. This is rarely the claimed source of outrage however.

The most feasible explanation for this inconsistency then is sexism in favor of females being a big motivating force. You probably don’t approve of sexism in picking job applicants or political candidates. Do you approve of it in picking policies which determine countless lives or deaths?

23 responses to “Are abortion views sexist?

  1. Overall I think you have a good solid point. But it would nicer if you could have clearer quotes showing the views of folks whose views you are suggesting are incoherent. Is it clear the people who think aborting women is bad are the same people who think abortion is ok?

  2. Alex Strittmatter

    To your argument about inconsistent positions held by the left on abortion I would note a bit of hypocrisy by the right: a sizable portion of the US electorate (including George W. Bush) believe human life “begins at conception,” but are okay with abortion in cases of rape, incest, etc. If one extends this set of beliefs to its logical conclusion, it would acceptable to kill a child (or adult) if that person was conceived as a result of rape or incest. If “human life is scared” and fetuses are human life than I don’t see where there is room for exceptions.

  3. Haha, I can’t believe these people exist? When you told me people believed that blind abortion is fine, but gender specific abortion is not I thought you must have been making it up.

  4. “If one extends this set of beliefs to its logical conclusion, it would acceptable to kill a child (or adult) if that person was conceived as a result of rape or incest. If “human life is scared” and fetuses are human life than I don’t see where there is room for exceptions.”

    No hypocrisy at all. Pro-lifers don’t see abortions in those cases as ok at all. They allow for exceptions because they want to save as many lives as possible, and allowing for no exceptions will turn people off. It is like Lincoln wanting to slowly end slavery but he would not dare move against it as long as his country was in state in peace, not civil war we ended up with.

    The exception most pro-lifers allow for is when the mother’s life is in danger, and mostly, they rather see one life saved rather than two lost.

  5. This reminds me of the finnish human rights expert (as he is often referred in media) Martin Scheinin, who supports the right to abortion, but at the same time is against abortion of disabled. It seems like he only accepts the abortion of the “normally abled” (and supernormally of course).

    But of course it’s about motivation. It’s evil to pry why a woman would want an abortion. It’s her body, and her choice… Except when the (what can I call without taking sides) thing is a woman or a disabled “person”

    Abortion exceptionalism is very difficultly defensed position. Everyone can understand that.

    My live-in girlfriend (avovaimo in finnish) wants to have a child with me, but refuses to carry a male child. I appreciate her honesty, but abhor her feminist sexism.

  6. There is definitely some dissonance in these positions if held by the same person. People are very good at bridging these logical gaps. We do it automatically. I think you are (perhaps) conflating the response to a question with a real world decision. A conversation about abortion is not an abortion. So, when you are having a conversation, there is not a potential human life at stake in the immediate sense. So, the overarching theme of men=bad, women=angelic takes precedence. It’s a simple heuristic with which we are familiar and well indoctrinated. It’s not female supremacy, it’s a myth of female innocence, grace, morality, “goodness”. The myth probably matches reality in many ways. People will merely state the position that makes them look good, depending on their company… everyone nods, takes another sip of wine…

    And there’s sort of an “inversion morality” here. To argue for internal self-consistency in this case is very easily seen as an argument IN FAVOR of “killing little girls.” This is not to be ignored. In these conversations, there is a great deal of “sidedness”. And arguing subtleties is seen as somehow impolite. “Who’s side are you on? Don’t mince words,” is a typical attitude. People who are incapable of parsing subtlety, whether because of intense, emotional reasons or dullishness are often the most intensely commited and “sided” people. These are the people that force issues and force all subtlety out of positions. This certainly happens in abortion, health care of late (lots of video of people demanding, “Which side are you on!”), race and racism, any hot issue.

    The cost of disagreeing, or even being seen as potentially disagreeing when one does not, exceeds the benefit of maintaining an internally consistent position… “Yes, dear…” as the beaten, beleaguered husband says while holding her purse…

  7. If we agree that the “pro-choice” stance is that a woman has an absolute and inalienable right over her own body, including the right to determine whether to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth, then it is easy to argue that sex selective abortion as practiced in India (where I am from,) and elsewhere is a crime. In significant sections of Indian society, which is largely patriarchal, women are under immense pressure to produce male offspring. (Mothers are widely held responsible for the gender of their child, which is even believed to have something to do with the mother’s ‘karma’!) The decision to commit “female foeticide” is in practice either forced upon women by their husbands/families, or by women themselves who buy into the common belief that sons are a blessing, while daughters are a burden. In either case it is the result of a rather oppressive form of patriarchy at work. A woman who is forced to undergo conception and abortion until she produces a male child has no rights to decide what happens to her own body. Of course, singling out sex-selective abortions to condemn and prevent is not an answer to the real problem, which is the systematic oppression of women throughout their lives.

    Even if the author’s friends are not basing their horrified reaction on all the above, the underlying belief is that the decision to abort or not should be independent of the child’s gender.

    “So confirmed females have a right to exist if they are conceived, and have suffered a grave loss if they cease to be, but fetuses who might be male may as well not exist? ”
    It is rather a case of a foetus having no inherent rights to exist independent of the person carrying it, and the carrier, faced with a choice to abort or not, should make the same decision whether the fetus is male or female. (Apologies to Paavo O’s partner, but her refusal to have a male child goes against all my feminist beliefs.) After all, being female (or male), is not the same as some of the other factors influencing selective abortions, such as having a major disability, or being at serious risk of developing a debilitating or life-threatening condition.

  8. I’m pro-choice and I don’t see any reason to be outraged at selective abortions based on the gender of the fetus. We cannot possibly hope to list every possible legal reason for going through with an abortion. How is the position of “I don’t want to raise a girl child” (as sexist and despicable as it is) any less legal than “I don’t want to raise a child”? Preferring one gender to the other is not illegal, so should we _force_ people to have kids until they have the sufficient number of kids of their favorite gender (and an approx. equal number of the other gender), or instead just allow them to choose whether they want to take a fetus to term or not? The people crying foul at selective abortion have let some of their cognitive biases (e.g., having witnessed many kinds of oppression against women in their lives) get in the way.

    I do realize that the practice of sex-selective abortion is revolting, but the consequences are not sustainable (i.e., many males go without mates and will not reproduce. On the flip side, however, there may be more crimes against women because there are so few of them..) I think the best we can do is to educate the the morons aborting on gender and hope they see the error of their ways; bringing more kids into already-overpopulated countries just to assuage some armchair feminists is certainly not the best course of action.

  9. I’m having a really hard time viewing this argument as anything but deliberately dishonest or disingenuous. The problem is in the first sentence: “Abortion isn’t too bad.” The view that women should be able to have an abortion is not about abortions being “not bad” or “good”, it’s about each abortion being better than the possible alternatives.

    A woman having an abortion has motivations, and as people, we can view some of these motivations as good and some as bad. If a woman were to enjoy getting abortions, were to get pregnant specifically to have abortions, most liberals would view that as wrong.

    Thus I see selective abortion as a sexist attack on her own children. She wanted to have a child, she’s going to go get pregnant again, she’s going to have a child. It’s not that abortion is preventing worse things from happening to her, it’s that abortion is a means of enacting sexism.

    • I agree it is about best possible alternatives, not absolute good and bad. So the key question is how big the cost of killing a fetus is seen to be. Many pro-choice claim it is tiny, not comparable with killing a human at all. Yes, one probably shouldn’t do it for fun, but it’s a lesser cost than those of having a child when you don’t want one, or can’t provide well for it, or it’s father was a rapist. You seem to agree. Then when talking about sex selective abortion people speak as if the cost to the child were large, e.g. you say it’s an ‘attack on her own children’. Do her children exist enough to suffer hugely from sexist attacks, but not enough to suffer significantly from losing their lives?

      • The easiest response to this is that “her children” exist as a mental entity, such that her killing a female fetus because it’s female is a strengthening of sexism in culture.

        So, to put it into your language, “the cost of killing a fetus” is different for different reasons, because those reasons contribute to different cultural forces. Which may relate to why so many regular people and anthropologists hate economists talking about “the cost” of an action, as if similar actions (disassociated from the mental realm) had to have similar costs.

        I.e., your argument would be equivalent but sound far more ridiculous if we were talking about the punishment for homicide. What’s the cost of an adult dying? Well, the cost is different if you killed him at target practice because he walked in front of the target vs. if you wanted his money.

    • Matt Steinglass

      If you conceive of this as a problem that exists between a single woman and her unborn child, you don’t understand what’s happening. Sex-selective abortion is an Asian cultural practice. Women who do it are generally conforming to the wishes of their families, usually extremely strong pressures from their mothers-in-law who control family reproductive choices and demand a son to continue the family lineage. This is bad because 1. it creates demographic catastrophes in which you end up with societies that are 55+% male, entailing unmarriagable men (leading to prostitution, female trafficking, and violence) and 2. it perpetuates a sexist gender stratification: aborting girls shows that society values girls less, and reproduces that valuation.

      Americans have got a problem: we are losing our ability to think in moral terms except at the level of the individual. Sex-selective abortion is bad because it is bad for society and the families that constitute society to value boys more than girls. Because this is bad for families as a general social rule, it is also bad for each member of each family: they are participating in a bad social practice. And it is good for collective values-based organizations, including NGOs, religious bodies, educational institutions and governments, to do things to change this practice. Does this make sense?

  10. Psychohistorian

    I think the objection to sex-selective abortion is, “Boo, sexism!” rather than, “Boo, abortion!.” It bothers pro-choice people that the society is sexist to the point where such abortion makes sense.

    I suspect you’d get a lot more moral outrage from, “Chinese culture values boys, so this Chinese couple aborted a female embryo,” versus, “This couple had three daughters, and they only wanted four kids, and they really wanted a son, so they aborted a female embryo.” If the motive does not appear sexist (or to reflect a sexist culture), I doubt the action would trigger outrage in pro-choice people.

    • Matt Steinglass

      Exactly right. There are, it is true, some pro-choice people who use the “missing girls” phraseology. That is a pretty confusing way to describe the problem. But what they’re trying to express is that a wrong has been committed against women as a class. In the example you give, the issue is of course that in China when a couple has three daughters, given the harsh penalties for having more than one child, the reason they have three daughters is that they kept trying for a son. Which in itself shows that they don’t value their daughters as much as they would if they were sons. And that is an implied wrong they are doing to their daughters.

      Whether any of this is anything that Western feminists can seriously expect to impact is a different question. So far the observed pattern is that sex-selective abortion is widely practiced for about 20 years, leads to dramatic imbalances in sex ratios that make it impossible for men to get married, and then you start to see families valuing girl babies more than boys. This has already taken place in South Korea and there is anecdotal evidence it is emerging in China.

  11. Moral intuitions scale very poorly, suffer from dangerous boundary shocks, and have other
    undesirable very properties. Its a disturbing fact of life really.

    Abortion is just one good example that tends to bring out this kind of incoherence in people’s values. For example I am personally pro-choice – I don’t believe that, rationally, an ovum suddenly “obtains rights” the moment a sperm reaches it. The logical follow up, then, becomes is infanticide wrong? My “gut” screams yes, murdering babies is vile, but then that troublesome rational mind asks “But then at what period of gestation does the fetus earn the right to live?” and I feel very uncomforable. So I default to “Its the woman’s baby and body, let it be on her conscience”, which is kinda cowardly as I freely admit.

    Probably, rationally speaking, I “incline” towards just accepting infanticide of newborns. But then that solves nothing, because at some point I have to say “this human being has a right not to die”, or I end up reasoning myself into some new variant on Nazism. And I value not being a Nazi more than I value being fully logically consistent in my moral beliefs. Which is not inconsistent with being a rationalist, but that’s a whole other blog post of my own some time.

    As far as your experiment here goes I think you’d find if you asked people a similar question about “Is aborting a fetus because it is male fine?” you’d get a similar level of “No that’s evil” responses. Not quite as many as for girls, but I think you’re probably overplaying the effect of people’s “feminist” values creating a massive sexist bias. Its more that most people are just totally all over the shop in there abortion reasoning.

  12. Per several earlier responses, I think you’re taking rhetoric which is incidentally abstract, bring it in to an abstract reasoning game of your own devising, and calling “checkmate ” when there’s no one on the other side of the table. Abortion does inspire rhetoric about morals, but that doesn’t mean your expertise in a certain approach to moral reasoning is responsive when applied to that rhetoric. You are very literally taking their words out of context.

    The rhetoric on abortion for sexual selection you highlight is overwrought, but it is an open (and different) question whether the analytical tools you bring to bear could be of any use at all in helping us understand abortion in any context. My personal position, after obtaining a B.A. in Philosophy, is “no,” for roughly the reasons laid out by Paul Graham here: . I doubt Matthew Yglesias would sign on to all of that, but in practice he is a trained philosopher who addresses moral rhetoric and moral questions daily without ever taking the approach you do here. If you are willing to see that approach challenged — and I think you should be — his work provides a de facto rejoinder to it.

  13. I have to wonder how many of these people exist.

    Also, I could easily make a coherent argument for it, which you appear to discount, in which it is strongly socially disruptive to have a gender imbalance. (Note that I am pro-choice, and would not advance such an argument. For me, it is enough that a woman not be forced to be an incubator against her will.)

  14. Gender-specific abortions of girls benefit the girls who get to be born anyway – they face less competition in the gender market. Consequently, those abortions benefit parents of those girls, and cost parents of the boys who will face tougher competition in the mating markets.

    As far as “abortion are not bad”, but “gender-specific abortions are horrible” argument, the difference is in the cultural prevalence. The majority of US pro-choice population supports abortions on the premise that abortions are rare and carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. “gender-specific” abortions come with a whole different attitude – it is culturally acceptable and very common to abort a fetus of the wrong (female) gender. This attitude makes it horrible, more than the selection criteria.

  15. The choice of abstractions matters here. The original post takes an individualist view and is quite correct that, on the level of individual choices, there is an inconsistency between approving of abortion generally yet disapproving of specific abortions.

    However, I suspect that the pro-choice argument is based on more collective-oriented principles. The right to abortion is deemed to be good for women as a group, partly because it is good for individual women within that group but also partly because it is deemed to change the role of women within the wider society. It is pro-women in the abstract, but this implies no reason to deny that some abortions may be anti-women in the specific. It’s therefore possible to approve of abortion generally, and disapprove of specific instances.

    This often comes as a surprise to individualist pro-choicers, who believe that the idea of abortion is that they, as an individual, can exercise free choice over what happens to their body with no moral issues arising from that. This fault line is one that runs through many issues, not just abortion, and is generally the dividing line between ‘libertarians’ and what in American English are these days called ‘liberals’.

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  18. “Aborting someone because they are female is wrong. Aborting someone because you don’t want to look after them is compassionate.”

    This could be tested by reframing the gender-specific abortion as compassionate. Something like this: — This world is horribly sexist against women. I don’t want my daughter to suffer from sexism all her life. — What would be a typical reaction to this?

  19. <3 for mentioning sexism in favor of women as a thing that actually exists in some form.


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