The Clash Between Women’s Right to Choose and Gender Selection

By Ori Herstein

According to The Economist (here), in India approximately 600,000 Indian girls are never born every year due to abortions performed for reason of gender selection. According to The Economist, upon performing an ultrasound test, many parents preferring to have a male child choose to abort female pregnancies. Reflecting on this phenomenon potentially brings one’s feminist values into conflict.

This apparently growing trend in India is problematic for several reasons. In addition to the fact that a gender imbalance in society will potentially have severe social implications for both younger and future generations, gender selection as a reason for abortion offends women as women. There is something wrong in these abortions that derives from the reason for undergoing them. And, there is a strong sense that – for feminist reasons – such abortions should be discouraged and even prohibited. In fact, India has done just that.

Prohibiting abortion when undergone for certain reasons clashes with the ideal of a “woman’s right to choose.” First, the right to choose by its very nature precludes limiting the choice to only certain and not to other reasons. The right to choose is in a sense also a right to do wrong: many accept that some abortions are wrong and still maintain that the State may not prohibit a woman’s right to make that choice. What is interesting in the Indian case is that a woman’s right to choose – often thought of as a feminist right – functions as a woman’s right to wrong women as women. This seems to put one’s feminist reasoning in a bind.

It is not impossible that in some places decisions about abortion are not really made by the pregnant women but by their families and husbands, and therefore perhaps full or better realization of a woman’s right to choose would yield less misogynistic results. But this is a factual speculation that, even if true, does not solve the theoretical puzzle.

Here is a possible solution: While gender selection is a feminist issue “all the way down” this is not the case for the right to choose. It seems to me that the right to choose is an autonomy and liberty right that happens to attach to women because of their sex, but could in principle attach to others. The fact that the right to choose is mostly a woman’s right to choose is, therefore, a matter of contingency and not category. In contrast, gender selection is categorically about gender. Thus, a feminist mostly devoted to the value of autonomy may favor – for feminist reasons – limiting the autonomy and liberty reflected in the right to abortion without internal contradiction.