Sex-Selection Abortions: Why the Pro-Choice Movement Can't Gulp

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 31 2012 1:57 PM

Why Pro-Choicers Should Be OK With Sex-Selection Abortions

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The goal.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

What’s a not-OK reason to get an abortion?

Rape and health of the mother, you’re cool with, yes?

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What about this nice Jewish girl who got one in college? That feels right. We don’t want her to ruin her future!

And the 26-year-old newlywed who, crap, gets knocked up six months in and isn’t quite ready for kids yet?

How does a 35-year-old single woman who wants to focus on her career strike you? (Oh, you are that woman? Hi.)

Where do you land on the middle-class wife who wants to save up a little more money before starting a family?  

And the mother of two who is not in the market for number three? You kinda get it, right? Three is a lot.

This is pretty elementary stuff: The pro-choice movement is not just about protecting the rights of women in the direst situations to control their own bodies. It’s about protecting that right for all of us. Which is why the left’s reaction to this latest flurry of activity around “sex-selection abortions” has me a little confused.  

Background: Today, the House of Representatives voted on PRENDA—the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act, otherwise known as “the sex-selection bill.” The legislation, which did not pass, would have made it a federal crime to abort a fetus based on its gender.

By all accounts, gender-motivated abortions are not a big thing in the United States. And this legislation, and the sudden explosion of coverage on the issue, is most certainly just another backdoor maneuver from the anti-choicers to chip away at abortion rights in general (see: personhood, chemical endangerment).  But the response from the left—which has basically been, this is not something that happens here frequently! Red herring!—is woefully inadequate and also exactly what the anti-choice movement wants. We are uncomfortable, which means they are winning.

It doesn’t matter that sex-selection abortions are rare in the United States. They do happen. And it doesn’t matter how slimy and slippery slopey the anti-choicers tactics are. (Aren’t you used to that yet? They’re good!) What’s relevant is that it’s entirely irrelevant why a woman wants an abortion.

Strategically, it makes no sense to give in to this idea that there’s somehow something a little queasier about having an abortion for gender than, say, for money. These are equally legitimate reasons (or, if you are on the other side, equally illegitimate). One might make you uncomfortable in your gut, but it can’t make the movement hesitate. Because that hesitation—that pause of, well, yes this one is complicated, or, as Amanda says, this one is "unpleasant to contemplate"—makes it that much easier for so many of those other reasons (money, timing, work) to seem a little not-OK too.

Also, let’s just remember that we are talking about fetuses. No matter how many ultrasound pics get posted to Facebook, these are fetuses with female genitals or male genitals—not little girls and little boys. If pro-choicers object to aborting because of the sex of the fetus, aren’t we then saying that abortion is “murdering” girls? Aren’t we basically arguing that a fetus is not a blank slate but a future possibility? That is not the case to make if your goal is to protect abortion rights. Gulp for a second if you must, then get over it.  

Allison Benedikt is a Slate senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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