Equality Begins in the Womb – Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke

How (Some) Feminists have Betrayed Girls


from Luke’s Journal 2018 | Hot Topics #1 | Vol. 23 No. 3

The Luke’s Journal editorial team is aware that this article has political implications and that, since publication, legislation may have changed nationally or in your state of residence and practice. Luke’s Journal advises that you contact your State chair if you have any questions or concerns regarding implications for your clinical practice.

Sex-selection, whether through IVF or abortion, remains controversial in Australia, and the debate around it has revealed deep divisions within feminism.

In June 2013, ALP and Coalition members joined in the Senate to vote for a motion condemning the practice of “gender-biased sex-selection in abortion or infanticide whether in Australia or overseas”. The motion was introduced by Victorian DLP Senator John Madigan following a News Limited report in April that year that Australian doctors were being asked to abort unborn baby girls, simply because the parents wanted a boy. It is unclear how often such requests are made, or how often they may be acceded to, although no doctors would admit to doing so.

Overseas, sex-selection abortion, sometimes called ‘gendercide’, is overwhelmingly used to eliminate female, not male foetuses. It is estimated that up to 200 million girls have been aborted worldwide simply for being the ‘wrong’ or less desirable sex. In China, where society values sons over daughters, the one-child policy is well known to have led to an increase in sex-selective abortions. But the practice is also increasing in other South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Taiwan. This is despite the fact that in China and India, sex-selection abortion is illegal, and in some countries it is even illegal to inform parents of the sex of their unborn child. The law seems to have little deterrent effect. There are situations where having a son rather than a daughter confers an economic advantage. In an agrarian society, sons are valued for their labour. Similarly, one can understand a preference for sons when the marriage of a daughter requires the payment of a dowry, or where it is sons who are expected to look after their elderly parents. However, it seems the major driver of sex-selection abortions is a culture which devalues women. In such countries the practice has become so widespread as to skew the population balance, and has been described as “a global war against baby girls”.1 In years to come there will be millions of wifeless men. This trend already results in an increasing demand for prostitution and reports of women from Vietnam, Myanmar, and North Korea being systematically trafficked to mainland China and Taiwan to be sold into forced marriages.

“Other feminist voices… admit that they are deeply conflicted, but for them the rights of (already born) women trump those of unborn girls.”

Christians ought to oppose sex-selection abortion, both on the grounds of respect for human life as made in the image of God, and because male and female are equally made in the image of God and are to be valued equally. Children are a gift from God, not a commodity to be ‘ordered’ with certain desired characteristics.

On the face of it, sex-selection abortion is so discriminatory that one might expect universal condemnation. However, despite the condemnation of the practice expressed by the Australian Senate in 2013, it is very unlikely that this will translate into a legal ban. In 2014 the same Senate voted against a bill introduced by Senator Madigan that would have banned Medicare rebates for sex-selection abortions. The Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Funding for Certain Types of Abortion) Bill 2013, was not supported by either major party. Some claimed that the ban was unnecessary because the practice is rare in Australia, but requests may well increase with increasing migration from Asian countries where it is accepted, and as family size continues to shrink and couples want a ‘balanced’ family.

Why the reluctance to ban or even restrict sex-selection abortion in Australia? In 2004, the National Health and Medical Research (NHMRC) essentially outlawed it, stating:

Sex-selection is an ethically controversial issue. The Australian Health Ethics Committee believes that admission to life should not be conditional upon a child being a particular sex. Therefore, pending further community discussion, sex-selection (by whatever means) must not be undertaken except to reduce the risk of transmission of a serious genetic condition.2

But these guidelines are only legally binding in relation to artificial reproductive technologies. Such technologies allow Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD): the genetic testing of embryos created in vitro to screen for diseases, and of course the sex may be determined, and then only the embryos which are free of genetic abnormality, of the desired sex, will be implanted. The states of Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia also have specific legislation prohibiting the use of PGD for sex-selection, except to prevent a genetic abnormality or disease that may be sex-linked.

IVF sex-selection is legal in the US, and the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC), a sub-committee of the NHMRC, undertook a year-long review of the practice, resulting in a renewal of this “ban” in April 2017.

There was a great deal of negative reaction to this decision, with claims that it will force Australians “desperate to have a boy or a girl to travel overseas for treatment”. Mark Bowman, medical director of Genea Fertility said that the decision was “ludicrous” and “flies in the face of civil liberties”, claiming that there was a genuine demand for sex-selection PGD, as Genea had received 130 inquiries about it in the past year. Current Fertility Society of Australia President, Prof. Michael Chapman, said the updated guidelines were a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity to “move forward” in line with the rest of the world.3

But if sex-selection is banned pre-implantation in Australia and is universally condemned, why the reluctance to ban or even restrict sex-selection abortion? One might think that feminists in particular would be pushing for a ban. And some are – hence the slogan “Gender Equality starts here”.

Yet other feminist voices have strongly opposed any ban on the practice. They admit that they are deeply conflicted, but for them the rights of (alreadyborn) women trump those of unborn girls. In 2012 in Canada, lobbyists argued against a bill that would have banned sex-selection abortion, saying that concerns about the practice shouldn’t get in the way of the greater need for ‘absolute’ access to abortion. Claiming that pro-life advocates raise the issue because they believe it is the “feminist Achilles heel,” one pro-choice activist said that however much she might dislike the practice, “Our bottom line has to be to let the woman decide. Always.” She rejected the idea that some reasons for abortion are more valid than others: “Any woman can choose an abortion for any reason, and she doesn’t have to tell us what it is. It’s none of our business.”4

Restricting abortion has become a no go area

It seems that, in Australia too, restricting abortion in any way at all has become a no go area for politicians. Senator Madigan’s bill prompted outrage from some feminists. Clementine Ford wrote: “This bill isn’t about banning sex-selective abortions. This bill is about banning abortion full stop…John Madigan and his band of merry middle-aged men aren’t interested in protecting female foetuses from gendered oppression. If they truly cared about gender inequality, they’d be defending the rights of women to control their own fertility, not just here but abroad”.5

“The logic of this is that there are no right or wrong choices for a woman in relation to abortion, not even better or worse choices, or better or worse reasons for a choice..”

Such feminists do face a real dilemma, expressed clearly in the self-contradictory statements of Greens Senator, Lee Rhiannon. On the one hand, she said that “The Australian Greens condemn sex-selective abortion where it does occur”, whilst on the other, even to raise the issue “is thelatest tactic of those dedicated to restricting women’s right to access full sexual and reproductive health services including abortion”.6

Feminism was historically, and ought logically to continue to be, protective of the powerless. But some sections of third wave feminism appear to have been hijacked by and reduced to “pro-choice”. Choice trumps everything. The logic of this is that there are no right or wrong choices for a woman in relation to abortion, not even better or worse choices, or better or worse reasons for a choice. To admit that aborting a girl because she is a girl is a poor reason opens the door to questioning other abortion choices, which seems to be taboo. Hence we have the bizarre situation of self-proclaimed feminists defending the ultimate discrimination against girls. They are prepared to sacrifice unborn girls on the altar of women’s choice.

Opponents of a 2012 U.S. bill for a ban on sex-selection abortion described it as a “War on Women”, but as Republican Representative Ann Marie Buerkle argued, “There can be no rights for women if we don’t allow them the right to life … This is the ultimate war on women. If we don’t allow women to be born, we cannot talk about any other rights.”7

Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke
Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke is a medical ethicist and researcher with Ethos.

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  1. Nicholas Elberstadt, “The Global War Against Baby Girls”, The New Atlantis Fall, 2011 https://www.thenewatlantis. com/publications/the-global-war-against-baby-girls
  2. NHMRC, Ethical guidelines on the use of assisted reproductive technology in clinical practice and research (2004) 11.1, p. 39. https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/files nhmrc/publications/attachments/e56.pdf
  3. Lanai Scarr, “Gender Selection IVF ban continued in Australia, but states could overrule”, news.com.au (April 20, 2017). https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/pregnancy/gender-selection-ivf-ban-continued-in-australia-but-states-could-overrule/news-story/f096899cd8be5ba8245a5ec7d600714c
  4. Jane Cawthorne, “Thoughts on Sex-Selection and Abortion”, The abortion monologues (Oct 2, 2012), http://abortionmonologues.blogspot.com/2012/10/thoughts-on-sex-selection-and-abortion.html
  5. Clementine Ford, “Four things we learned from the Senate’s gender abortion debate” (Sept 26, 2014), http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/four-things-we-learned-from-the-senates-gender-abortion-debate-20140925-3gnf6.html
  6. Lee Rhiannon, “Madigan pushes misleading gender-selection abortion motion” Press Release (June 17, 2013) https://lee-rhiannon.greensmps.org.au/articles/madigan-pushes-misleading-gender-selection-abortion-motion
  7. National Right to Life. “Majority of U.S. House Votes to Ban Sex-Selection Abortions” (July 27, 2012) https://www.nrlc.org/site/news/12/summer12news/sexselectionabortionpage1/