Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times conservative columnists whose pieces I occasionally force myself to read, wrote an article yesterday about sex-selective abortion. In short, he claimed that the reason 160 million women were “missing” (that is, the reason they were so outnumbered in many countries like India and China, as well as other nations in the Balkans and Central Asia) was because they were “killed” via sex-selective abortion. In his words, the women weren’t “missing,” they were “dead.” (He also claims that the author of the book he cites, Mara Hvistendahl of the book “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” appropriates the issue to one of patriarchy, of greater social issues and inequities – which I agree with. He then says that “the sense of outrage that pervades her story seems to have been inspired by the missing girls themselves, not the consequences of their absence,” saying that she is more upset by the idea of abortion itself than she is about the issues surrounding abortion. Don’t you think that’s for her to decide? And doesn’t it seem she’s already decided what she thinks based on her book?)
Douthat, however, manages to contradict the crux of his argument near the start of his column.
He begins by saying “female empowerment often seems to have led to more sex selection, not less.” He then quotes Hvistendahl as saying “women use their increased autonomy to select for sons,” because male offspring bring higher social status. In countries like India, sex selection began in “the urban, well-educated stratum of society,” before spreading down the income ladder.
If this were the case – if in fact women had become truly empowered in their respective lands – culturally, politically, economically – then why would they be aborting based on the opposite – that men in their communities are still holding the cards? Are they imagining that men still hold positions of power and wealth in their countries, or are they living the ramifications of that painful reality everyday? Women do have some increased autonomy in many of these regions. But guess what? This autonomy has likely served to highlight the still very real inequities and disparities that exist in their communities, which contributes to the rates of sex-selective abortion. If women see which sex has the higher status, and one of the few autonomous decisions they can make is to choose the sex of their baby – they are likely going to choose the one with more status. This upsetting power dynamic shows just how far away true empowerment is for many of these women and their communities. If they felt their children would have the same opportunities if they were female than if they were male, the sex selection abortion Douthat decries would actually decrease. It is not the responsibility of the female fetus to ensure she is treated with the same respect and equality as the male fetus. Douthat seems to really care about female fetuses – but seems less interested in addressing the massive social, political, and economic issues that create so many difficulties for them once born. (His colleagues Paul Krugman and Nick Kristof seem to have handles on that. Too bad they were off yesterday.)
It seems that Douthat wants to push for the feelings of regret and remorse about abortion itself, separate from the issues surrounding it. Does sex-selection abortion sadden me? Yes. Does aborting a fetus that indicates it will have Down Syndrome sadden me? Yes. You know what else makes me sad? That a woman cannot afford a baby because she is single and has no familial or community support; because she has an abusive partner (homicide is the number one cause of death for pregnant women); because she has a low-wage hourly job that offers no maternity leave which could help her stay well while carrying the baby if needed; because she has no health insurance meaning she can’t access quality pre-natal care to make sure her baby would be healthy since we are systematically closing down those facilities that offer services for women who are uninsured (and also help provide birth control to prevent pregnancy!); because she has no way to pay for day care and she may have to quit her low-wage job to care for her baby; because she would then have no money for all the supplies, food, and developmental tools her baby would need to thrive which can lead to malnutrition, behavioral problems, child depression; because she could then become part of the 29.9% of families in poverty that are headed by single women, and her child could become part of the 35% of those in poverty who are under 18 years of age - the poverty rate for households headed by single women is significantly higher than the overall poverty rate.
We’ve cut child welfare services that aid women by the tens of millions in the past few years. Georgia alone cut over $10 million in Child Welfare Services. We’ve also cut subsidies that support adoption agencies – the organizations that help women find families that may be able to care for her baby were she to carry it to term – and who make sure these families are actually fit to do so! TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) provides women and families with aid so that children can be raised in their own homes or with relatives, instead of being placed in foster care and becoming wards of the state. How much have we cut from TANF? 17 of the poorest states, with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, have already stopped receiving funds.
Birth control, one might say? Sure – birth control is expensive, so if she doesn’t have health insurance, she isn’t likely to be able to afford birth control (hey, Planned Parenthood can help with that, too! Seeing a pattern?) And if her partner refuses to wear a condom? If she is in an abusive relationship, if she fears leaving her partner, if she relies on her partner for added economic security – she’s much less likely to argue with him about the condom use. Or even feel that she has the agency to begin a negotiation discussion at all.
These facts make me sad. And all of these facts might lead a woman to decide she can’t have a baby. And many things not listed here may lead a woman to decide that she will not have a baby. And that she will have an abortion. Is it my decision? No. It’s not. It’s not yours or Ross Douthat’s, either. Again, Douthat represents the contingent of pro-lifers who want to make it seem like pro-choicers are cheering the performing of abortions right and left. What we are cheering is the right for women and respect of women to make their own decision based on their very specific personal circumstances. And given the fact that the medical establishment has not agreed with the pro-life camp in claiming that fetuses before a month into the third trimester can feel pain (reacting to stimuli does not equal pain, to reiterate, and pain without a cerebral cortex is seen by physicians as not possible), which has most recently become the pro-life camp’s wildly off-base rationale for preventing a woman’s right to choose, and given the fetus’ place of residence in the woman’s uterus as a part of her body, not as a human, these issues that Douthat sees as “sideline” are actually very much at the center of the argument. Bottom line – it’s the woman’s body. It’s the woman’s choice. She will be the one carrying it, she will be the one birthing it. No one else. So why should anyone else decide?
Additionally, it is not a crime for a woman to not want children. Since she is able to give birth, it is her decision as to when and how that will happen. Everything about her life and future will change once she has a baby. So she needs to be sure she is ready for that. How can one disagree with that? Douthat may not like it, but “the sense of outrage that pervades his story” (see what I did there? ;) ) seems to me more rooted in his anger and frustration with his opinion not being considered by women in these decisions and not being able to control what a woman decides to do about what is going on in her body.
All of the things I listed – the job issues, the healthcare issues, the family and community issues, the issues that arise when a child doesn’t have access to food, clothing, and developmentally appropriate stimulation – are the causes. So why don’t we start figuring out how we can mitigate those facts and issues instead of attacking the effect – the abortion – which is a decision women come to after weighing all of those facts and issues just discussed. Douthat’s fear tactics of talking about female fetuses strewn across Indian hospitals is scary imagery. So is this:
Want less abortions? How about providing health insurance, that covers both birth control and pre-post natal care? How about equal pay for equal work, so women are more financially and economically secure, providing them with the resources to stay out of poverty and keep their children out of it, too? How about child care in work environments, helping women who cannot afford day care can stay in their jobs and remain a part of the economy? While we’re at it, how about great public schools and clean community centers, so women know their children are being intellectually fed and socially stimulated in safe environments that help keep them out of more dangerous and potentially life-threatening social circles? How about comprehensive sex education so men and women know how to protect themselves not only from pregnancies but from diseases that can endanger a fetus and create complications during birth and cause health issues for them and their children – creating more expense, particularly if one has no health insurance.
Let’s talk then. And how about you follow me on Twitter?