THE BLOG
02/28/2012 05:07 EST | Updated 04/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Will Pro-Choice Advocates Speak Out Against "Sex Selection?"

A controversial editorial in the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal calls for a ban on disclosure of the sex of a fetus until late in pregnancy. So what's wrong with aborting a fetus of undesired gender? That's what the "right to choose" is all about, isn't it? Actually, no.

A controversial editorial in the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal calls for a ban on disclosure of the sex of a fetus until late in pregnancy, a measure aimed at discouraging the practice of abortion for the purpose of sex selection prevalent in some Asian communities in Canada. (Mind you, when non-Asian Canadians do it, it's called "family balancing" and demands a more "nuanced" response, according to one health policy researcher quoted in the media.)

So what's wrong with aborting a fetus of undesired gender? That's what the "right to choose" is all about, isn't it?

Actually, no. The "right to choose" was a necessary shorthand adopted by the women's movement so that we couldn't be saddled with the label of being "pro-abortion." But even back then, many feminists realized that there were complexities (nuances, you might call them) that the slogan didn't address or acknowledge.

The struggle for access to abortion was part of a larger movement for women's right to control our reproduction -- the ability to choose if and when we wanted children, and how many. And feminists' demands weren't limited to abortion and birth control, but included a raft of socioeconomic measures to support childbearing and raising a family. (Back in the Mad Men era, remember, it was perfectly legal for a company to fire a women when she became pregnant.) Reproductive rights were a crucial element in levelling the playing field for women's equality with men, and it is one of the cornerstones of modern feminism.

But sex selection -- excuse me, "family balancing" -- isn't really about the right to choose abortion. It's a trend that's come about because the technology to determine the sex of a fetus has become widely available. Ultrasound, in fact, has come to be regarded as a routine, even necessary part of a childbearing, even though it has never been shown to be of benefit in normal, low-risk pregnancies.

As happens time and again with new technologies, what begins as an option becomes an imperative. The result is that nowadays, prospective parents are presented with a "choice" that didn't exist less than a generation ago (plus, you get those cool in utero photos of your baby to show friends and relatives).

Recently I watched some T.V. interviews on the subject, and one woman stressed that she didn't intend to do anything with the information from her ultrasound. She "just really needed to know" the sex of her baby. Why? To paint the nursery pink or blue? To know if there'll be someone to carry on the family name?

If we're honest, we'll admit that, except in cases of, say, medical conditions that are gender-related, there really is no good reason to know a baby's sex in advance. We don't really need to know -- we just want to find out. Because we can.