Five United Nations agencies have banded together to call for urgently addressing gender-biased sex selection favouring boys, a common practice in many parts of South, East and Central Asia that they say fuels a culture of discrimination and violence.These efforts to combat sex selection are good and important. But the UN also thinks Asia must preserve access to abortion. The document explains: "States have an obligation to ensure that these injustices are addressed without ... denying [women] access to needed services such as safe abortion ..." In other words, Asian countries shouldn't overreact by prohibiting abortion, which in general (when not used for sex selection) is permissible and may even be "necessary."
"Sex selection in favour of boys is a symptom of pervasive social, cultural, political and economic injustices against women, and a manifest violation of women's human rights," says a statement issued by the agencies, which have reviewed the evidence behind the causes, consequences and lessons learned regarding "son preference."
Often under intense pressure to produce a son, women seek to discover the sex of a foetus through ultrasound. The discovery of a female foetus can then lead to its abortion.
Sex selection can also take place before a pregnancy is established, or after the birth of a girl, through child neglect or infanticide, they add. Over decades, the practice has caused a sex-ratio imbalance in many countries particularly in South Asia, East Asia and Central Asia – with ratios in some places as high as 130 boys for every 100 girls.
"There is huge pressure on women to produce sons ... which not only directly affects women's reproductive decisions, with implications for their health and survival, but also puts women in a position where they must perpetuate the lower status of girls through son preference," they say.
"It is also women who have to bear the consequences of giving birth to an unwanted girl child. These consequences can include violence, abandonment, divorce or even death," according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The imbalance between the number of men and women owing to sex selection can in some areas lead to the trafficking of women for forced marriages from other regions or the sharing of brides among brothers, the agencies point out.
"Renewed and concerted efforts are needed by governments and civil society to address the deeply rooted gender discrimination which lies at the heart of sex selection," the experts noted.
So: According to the UN, abortion in general is okay (for reasons ranging from convenience, economics, relationship troubles, etc.), but abortion for one particular reason (sex selection, e.g., wanting a boy instead of a girl) is presumably wrong. Does this view make sense?
"[I]f the human fetus has no moral status, then sex-selection abortion would seem as permissible as other forms of abortion," writes Christopher Kaczor in his recent book The Ethics of Abortion. On the other hand, if the unborn is a valuable human being -- if sex-selection abortion is the killing of a real someone based solely on her gender -- then all abortions are unjust, for they are all the killing of real someones.
Perhaps a pro-choice advocate could argue that sex selection is wrong because of its harmful social consequences. But that doesn't make sex-selection abortion wrong in itself. We can conceive of hypothetical societies in which sex selection would not have damaging consequences (for example, a society in which sex selection actually helps maintain a healthy male-female ratio).
What makes sex-selection abortion so wrong is what makes abortion in general wrong. If you have serious ethical qualms about the discriminatory killing of sex-selection abortion -- as all of us should -- then you probably should have serious qualms about abortion in general.