Sex-Selective Abortion: Saving Girls Takes a Lot More than a Hidden Camera


When I got to work that day, the abortion clinic director took me aside. “We have a couple coming in for a sex-selection abortion,” she said. “The fetus is a girl, and their culture prefers boys. I want to know if you will be able to work with them without judging or being negative. Be honest. If you can’t be their advocate, I will. I need to know by four o’clock.” I thought about it. I knew I was supposed to support every woman’s right to choose. I had been trained to be non-judgmental, to remember that there is almost always a deeper story than the one the patient shared with us. I knew that the pro-choice thing to do would be to say yes, that I would work with them. Still, I said no. I said I could not participate in an act that was a direct expression of cultural misogyny (hatred of females).

I was right to see the couple’s abortion in terms of cultural misogyny, but I was wrong to say no, to interpret their decision as misogynist.

Judging from recent news items, we can assume the anti-abortion rights people would say I did the right thing. Several state legislatures, as well as Congress, have debated bills that would outlaw abortion for reasons of sex or race, bills that have been sponsored and supported by anti-abortion rights politicians and activists. An anti-abortion rights organization has made headlines with its “sting operations,” in which an actor enters clinics wearing a hidden camera, pretending to be a potential patient who wants to abort her pregnancy because she is carrying a girl.

I imagine that some prochoice people would say I did the wrong thing. After all, I abandoned my commitment to women’s freedom of choice.

At our post-clinic meeting that night, I learned that all of the advocates had refused to work with the couple. We had a good discussion about our feelings, our disappointment at a world in which such a decision would be made, and our dismay that it would be made at our clinic. “We don’t do coerced abortions,” one of the advocates said. “We turn away patients who can not find resolution around their decisions. How is this any different?”

“This was not a case of being unresolved,” said our clinic director. She explained that this woman knew she wanted her abortion. She wanted it in order to save herself and her husband from being ostracized by his family when they returned home. She wanted it because, in her culture, girls were not valued, and she didn’t want her baby to be a not-valued member of society.

If we look at this situation through the lens of reproductive justice, we can see that I was indeed wrong to say no but not because I failed to be prochoice. I was wrong because I failed to see that this couple was doing the best they could do, given an untenable situation.

An often-quoted definition of reproductive justice says that it is “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.” SisterSong Reproductive Justice organization explains that reproductive justice “represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.” (See http://sistersong.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=141&Itemid=81.)

If we focus on reproductive justice, we can see that gender preference among pregnant women/couples is a symptom, not a cause, of a wide-spread, cross-cultural system of thought that defines us and values us according to our gender. Each person is put in a “gender box” (and only two boxes are available), and everything about us—our talents and abilities, our principles, our behaviors—are judged according to which box we get stuck in.

In cultures where there is very strong son-preference, being stuck in the “female” gender box means being devalued, seen as an expense, a liability to one’s family and community. And one of the only ways to become more valuable as a woman is to produce a son. When we look at this system through the lens of reproductive justice, we can see the layers of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints that would lead a young couple to choose a sex-selection abortion. This is where I failed the couple in our clinic; I failed to see them as constrained by a sexist society that had them, their families, and their community—in short, their entire support system—trapped.

In cultures where there is more relative equality between the genders, we see each gender as a potential asset, but always as an asset defined and limited by gender. This is what leads many U.S. couples to strive for “gender balance” in their family structures. Do you have three daughters? Surely you will try one more time for that son! All boys in your family? Don’t you wish for a sweet little girl to spoil? In the U.S., particularly, pressure is put on men to produce sons; no man is supposed to want to be “the only guy in the house,” and who could he play catch with, if he has no sons? When we look at this system through the lens of reproductive justice, we must acknowledge that here, too, are layers of constraints—different constraints, to be sure, but constraints nonetheless—t hat might lead a young couple to choose abortion for reasons of family balance.

If we dislike these systems, our responsibility is to change the systems. If Lila Rose (who releases the sting videos) and anti-abortion rights politicians are really concerned about gender imbalance resulting from girls’ being “targeted” by abortion, they need to step up now and work to end sexism, globally. They need to work against any system that puts human beings in gender boxes and work toward a world based on the principle of full gender equality. Lila Rose is working hard to limit women’s (and only women’s) abilities to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their families. She is doing nothing to end sexism in the U.S. or in the world. In fact, she is doing just the opposite.

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  • pegjohnston

    In this hostile and polarized atmosphere it takes a lot to talk about the practice of abortion, but Jeannie Ludlow reveals the thoughtfulness that goes into these situations in most abortion care facilities. Interestingly, this has been a topic of conversation for years among bio-ethicists and their conclusion is largely to let people find their own comfort zone–only the woman and her loved ones can know what is best for her situation and we can only check in to be sure she has the resources she needs to cope with her decision, no matter what it is.

    This honesty is refreshing to say the least, but essential if we want different conversations.

    Thank you!

  • jennifer-starr

    Lila Rose is concerned about Lila Rose.  This whole ‘sting’ is a nothing more than a gimmick for her to get her face on the news and more publicity for herself. She apparently wanted to be an actress–now she gets to play one.  Lila and her group have zero interest in actually helping women or ending the sexism that lies behind someone making the choice to have a sex-selection abortion.