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Both sides of the coin

Most people who support a woman’s right to choose when to have children call themselves just that – pro choice. While most rankle at the lazy characterization of “pro-abortion”, I’m personally okay with it. I am for abortion access. I think every time someone makes the choice to have a child it should be celebrated, and every time someone decides that now is not the right time, that’s a smart move too. I feel no sense of moral panic at the consequences of my stance. Anyone who would use abortion as birth control (the religious right’s nighmare scenario) isn’t someone I want raising a child, not even as some kind of twisted form of ‘just deserts’ punishment.

As I’ve explained before, it is wildly inaccurate to call the opposite side – the anti-choice side – anything else. They’re not “anti-abortion”, since restrictions on abortion do not reduce the overall number of abortions. And they’re not “pro-life”, because when women seek out abortion services outside of a licensed medical practitioner, the results can be fatal:

A rising proportion of abortions worldwide are putting women’s health at risk, researchers say. The World Health Organization study suggests global abortion rates are steady, at 28 per 1,000 women a year. However, the proportion of the total carried out without trained clinical help rose from 44% in 1995 to 49% in 2008.

The fact that doesn’t filter through to the clinic-picketing placard-holding, pamphlet-distributing, pseudo-fascists that comprise the “embryos are corporations people” camp, is that making something illegal does not make it stop. You could lock up every doctor in the world, and people would still conceive unwanted children – this is to say nothing of the number of children who cannot be brought to term because doing so would likely kill the mother. Prohibition leads to illicit activity, not a reduction in the level of activity, which is precisely what this study suggests.

So now we are in a familiar territory for a guy who looks at health care systems – harm reduction. If you think that abortion constitutes a harm, and banning it outright only increases the “proximate” harms (i.e., harm to people that is related to abortion, but is not abortion per se), then the path you should be pursuing is one that, while reducing the proximate harms, pares down the “primary” harm:

Well gosh – would you look at that? It’s almost as if countries that have ready access to abortion provide climates in which abortion becomes less necessary. It’s certainly the case that restricting access to safe and legal abortions does not make for lower rates. If one was interested in actually reducing the number of abortions, focussing on the legal issues is a red herring that only puts women – usually poor women – at greater risk to their health.

So, as I said before, I lose no sleep over being pro-abortion. I say have as many abortions as you need. It maybe doesn’t need to be said, but holding any other stance would be unforgivably hypocritical – I will never need to have an abortion myself. I say let the women make the decisions, and I will shut up as soon as the men on the anti-choice side do the same.

Where I am uneasy is when I start examining the unexpected consequences of my own beliefs:

Kale says that in countries such as India, China, Korea and Vietnam, female fetuses are commonly aborted because of a preference for sons. Though by no means widespread, the practice is carried out by some immigrants to Canada, Kale says.

His editorial cites a small U.S. study of about 65 immigrant Indian women that found 40 per cent had terminated earlier pregnancies, and 89 per cent pursued abortions in their most recent pregnancies after learning they were having girls. Previous Canadian research has suggested that sex selection is occurring in Canada in certain groups when families have had girls and are seeking a son. The practice has created a gender imbalance in these communities.

So before I delve too deep into this story, I feel that it’s important to point out that “some groups” refers specifically to immigrant groups. I am immediately more-than-baseline skeptical whenever people talk about “those others” doing some horrible thing like this. It is the same with “honour killings” – they’re only called that when immigrants do it (particularly immigrants from those sandy loser countries where all the terrorists come from, donchaknow). Similarly, it’s pretty easy to point fingers at immigrant groups without taking all of the explanatory factors into account.

That being said, assuming that the studies the story cites are sound, my “abortions for some, miniature American flags for others” policy suddenly doesn’t look so progressive and fem-friendly. It rather abruptly turns into a mechanism by which more chauvinistic cultures can propagate their sex bias that wishes to be welcoming to newcomers while eliminating gender discrimination. It is a fine line to walk, and an “open doors” abortion policy fails to address the real(?) danger of abortion as sex selection.

So how can I reconcile the fact that abortion access is a good thing for society with the potential for abuse? Is it hypocritical for me to decry putting limits on abortion access with one breath, then turn around and demand closer scrutiny with the next? Is it potentially racist to suggest that “certain women” should be under special scrutiny when seeking these procedures? Can the answer really be, as the article suggests, to refuse to disclose the sex of the child until it is too late to abort?

I am not sure what “the answer” is (and maybe one of you will have a brainwave in the comments), but it seems to me that like any other kind of sexism, the answer must come from social pressure rather than legislation. While we can pass laws banning sex selective abortion, those laws are nearly impossible to enforce. What we can do, however, is create a climate in which all people understand that sons and daughters are equally valuable. In so doing, we can reduce all forms of proximate harms while maintaining the integrity of both a woman’s right to choose, and a baby girl’s right to be loved as much as her brothers are.

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