June 28, 2012 — Summary of "A Problem-and-Solution Mismatch: Son Preference and Sex-Selective Abortion Bans," Barot, Guttmacher Policy Review, Spring 2012.
One of the latest strategies deployed by abortion-rights opponents -- "ostensibly in the interest of protecting women" -- is a push to ban abortion for the purpose of sex selection, Sneha Barot writes in a Guttmacher Institute policy review. While the practice is widespread in some East and South Asian countries, and there is some evidence that it "may also occur among some Asian communities in the United States," advocates for these communities, as well as civil rights and reproductive justice organizations, argue that bans on sex-selective abortion have "the potential to do much harm and no good," Barot writes. They contend that "the real problem that needs to be addressed is son preference -- itself a deeply seated and complex manifestation of entrenched gender discrimination and inequity," Barot adds.
Identifying the 'Root Problem'
The "deep-seated preference" for sons in some countries -- especially India and China -- is fueled by "a variety of factors that continue to make males more socially and economically valuable than females," Barot explains. For example, inheritance and land rights pass through male heirs, who also have greater income potential than women, who "require dowries and leave the natal family upon marriage, which makes them an unproductive investment."
At the individual and family level, the strong preference for sons contributes to an "intense -- and intensely internalized -- pressure placed on women to produce male children," Barot continues. Although in the past families might continue to grow until a son -- or sons -- was born, many couples today prefer smaller families. Further, Chinese policies that limit family size to one or two children, combined with technologies such as ultrasounds, "have facilitated the preference for and practice of choosing boys without having to resort to infanticide."
Effects of Sex Selection
Barot notes that in some regions, "son preference is so strong and sex-selective practices so common that, at the population level, the number of boys being born is much greater than the number of girls." In India, the number of girls younger than age seven per 1,000 boys consistently decreased over the past three decades, reaching 914 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2011. Similarly, in China, the sex ratio at birth has become increasingly skewed; there were 120 boys born for every 100 girls in 2005.
Barot writes that skewed sex ratios can have "negative social consequences," particularly for women and girls. When there are too few women available for marriage, it exacerbates problems such as bridal abductions, trafficking, rape and other violence against women.
Addressing the Problem
Barot writes that the "most authoritative and instructive roadmap on how to understand and counter the problems of sex selection is a statement released last year by five [United Nations] agencies" involved in global health and rights. The statement outlines five categories of recommendations for action, including the need for more data; guidelines on obstetric technologies that do not reinforce access inequities; policies to promote gender equity and equality; support for women and girls, such as education and health services; and advocacy and communication activities to encourage valuing girls.
The U.N. statement cautions that "legal action is an important and necessary element but is not sufficient on its own." Barot notes that three dozen countries, including China and India, have laws or policies aimed at discouraging sex selection. However, countries have had little success in affecting change, "likely because enforcement is extremely difficult," Barot writes. Banning sex-selective abortion also is problematic because it can "create barriers to health care for women with legitimate medical needs," deter health care providers from offering safe care, and force women to often undergo unsafe procedures.
Attempts at U.S. Bans
The findings included with a bill (HR 3541) sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) that would have banned sex-selective abortion, "rely on international evidence of sex selection because U.S. data on the subject are both limited and inconclusive," Barot writes. She adds that in the U.S., the sex ratio in 2005 was 105 boys to 100 girls -- the biological norm.
Although supporters of Franks' bill have cited a study involving interviews with 65 immigrant Indian women who practiced sex selection before pregnancy or through abortion, "[m]any of these women spoke of the social and cultural basis for son preference and the intense pressure faced by women in their communities to produce sons," Barot notes.
Advocacy groups, including the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, "acknowledge that son preference is an important global concern that needs attention wherever it continues to exist," Barot writes. However, the groups emphasize that the issue cannot be addressed through abortion bans, which "would only perpetuate further discrimination in their communities through stereotyping and racial profiling of Asian women whose motivations for an abortion would be under suspicion."
Barot continues that advocacy groups are "fiercely denouncing" the bans because of "their deep-seated conviction that the true motivations of the measures' proponents have everything to do with undermining abortion rights and nothing to do with fighting gender discrimination -- and that, in fact, the measures themselves threaten only to exacerbate the very problem."
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
Justyn Ware, editor
Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership