28 June 2011

Conservative Reactions to the Epidemic of Sex-Selection Abortions ...

Journalist Mara Hvistendahl has produced what is uniformly viewed as a disturbing book - Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls,and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Public Affairs Press, 2011). In it she details the widespread use by prospective parents in developing countries of selective abortion as a means of determining the sex of their offspring. The pattern, unsurprisingly, is one in which large numbers of girl fetuses are aborted by parents hoping for sons.

I have not read this book. It is on my "order" list. Tyler Cowen, who is a terrifically interesting economist, gives it a thumbs up here. I want to talk about two things. The first is the way, predictably, conservative anti-abortion types have taken up Hvistendahl's findings as a cudgel. The second thing is about the necessity to think through causal processes in a clear way before spouting moralized inferences.

I came across the book in two essays [1] [2] by one of the in-house conservatives at The New York Times editorial page - Ross Douthat. But I also encountered this review at The Wall Street Journal. Both Douthat and the WSJ reviewer (Jonathan Last from The Weekly Standard) , try to use Hvistendahl to establish the incoherence or hypocrisy of people who advocate a pro-choice position. Clearly, they insist, pro-choice types have no regard for all those unborn baby girls.

Let's start charitably. Both Douthat and Last voice various more or less important qualms about Hvistendahl's argument, tone and proposals. We'll see; I'll read the book. But let's say that the reviewers are right in picking out this or that problem with the book. It nevertheless does not seem as though their primary complaint is terribly convincing. They both accuse Hvistendahl (as a proxy for virtually all advocates of abortion rights for women) of inconsistency for both decrying sex-selective abortion and remaining pro-choice. But Hvistendahl has not got quite so much of a problem as Douthat and Last think. She can clearly (and apparently does) find the consequences of sex-selection problematic precisely because of the overall violence and political instability that unbalanced societies display. And she can (and apparently does) do the same because societies marked by unbalanced sex-ratios devalue the lives of actually existing women. As I will suggest below, she might also be motivated by the ways sex-election reflects the devalued position of existing women in many (all?) societies.

That said, consider the first of the topics I mentioned above. Last seems totally unconcerned that he personifies precisely the sort of reaction that made the author apprehensive. Here is his complaint:
Ms. Hvistendahl is particularly worried that the "right wing" or the "Christian right"—as she labels those whose politics differ from her own—will use sex-selective abortion as part of a wider war on abortion itself. She believes that something must be done about the purposeful aborting of female babies or it could lead to "feminists' worst nightmare: a ban on all abortions."
And here is his immediate reply, which is to accuse Hvistendahl of parochialism and worse:
It is telling that Ms. Hvistendahl identifies a ban on abortion—and not the killing of tens of millions of unborn girls—as the "worst nightmare" of feminism. Even though 163 million girls have been denied life solely because of their gender, she can't help seeing the problem through the lens of an American political issue. Yet, while she is not willing to say that something has gone terribly wrong with the pro-abortion movement, she does recognize that two ideas are coming into conflict: "After decades of fighting for a woman's right to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, it is difficult to turn around and point out that women are abusing that right."
Yet here he is, soon after, himself seeing the problem precisely through the same parochial lens:
Despite the author's intentions, Unnatural Selection might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of "choice." For if "choice" is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against "gendercide." Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother's "mental health" requires it. Choice is choice.
This passage not only proves Hvistendahl right about our own anti-choicers, it demonstrates a remarkable shallow grasp - "Choice is choice." - of anything resembling social or political theory. I will come back to that below.

For now lets notice that the language in all this is loaded. Last is talking about "aborting female babies." And he apparently thinks that that clinches the case. But he is clearly engaging in rhetorical slight of hand. A fetus is a fetus - not an unborn baby. But that is the purposeful confusion on which Last's entire tirade trades. The same is true of Douthat. Here he is:

"Over all, “Unnatural Selection” reads like a great historical detective story, and it’s written with the sense of moral urgency that usually accompanies the revelation of some enormous crime.

But what kind of crime? This is the question that haunts Hvistendahl’s book, and the broader debate over the vanished 160 million.

The scale of that number evokes the genocidal horrors of the 20th century. But notwithstanding the depredations of the Chinese politburo, most of the abortions were (and continue to be) uncoerced."
And, like Last, he steps right into the anti-abortion role Hvistendahl anticipates:
" . . . the fact that Hvistendahl holds no brief for the pro-life movement only makes her story’s implicitly anti-abortion emotional wallop that much more striking."
Here is his case in greater detail:
"This places many Western liberals, Hvistendahl included, in a distinctly uncomfortable position. Their own premises insist that the unborn aren’t human beings yet, and that the right to an abortion is nearly absolute. A self-proclaimed agnostic about when life begins, Hvistendahl insists that she hasn’t written “a book about death and killing.” But this leaves her struggling to define a victim for the crime that she’s uncovered.

It’s society at large, she argues, citing evidence that gender-imbalanced countries tend to be violent and unstable. It’s the women in those countries, she adds, pointing out that skewed sex ratios are associated with increased prostitution and sex trafficking.

These are important points. But the sense of outrage that pervades her story seems to have been inspired by the missing girls themselves, not the consequences of their absence.

Here the anti-abortion side has it easier. We can say outright what’s implied on every page of “Unnatural Selection,” even if the author can’t quite bring herself around.

The tragedy of the world’s 160 million missing girls isn’t that they’re “missing.” The tragedy is that they’re dead."

Notice that Douthat too is trading both on theoretical assumptions about whether choices are "uncoerced" and on an assumed answer to the question of whether a fetus is a "life", albeit "unborn." And he wants to downplay the possibility of consequentialist concerns I mentioned above. Those cannot be basis enough, surely, to fuel Hvistendahl's outrage! And since something else must be going on, it just must be that fetus is an unborn baby! To his credit Douthat, at least, acknowledges the partiality of his claims: "I'm coming at this from a pro-life perspective, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading my own views into the text." Just so. And those views are hardly persuasive. Jonathan Last surely must be welcoming Douthat to his parochial club!

Now to the second point. Douthat and Last both insist that the choice whether to abort is more or less free and de-contextualized. That view is pretty much incoherent. The choices being made here are being made in the context of economic pressures on families. Douthat and Last point out that the practice of sex-selective abortions seems to have started among families relatively high up in the wealth-income distribution. Surprise, the impoverished barely have money to eat, let alone explore the vast range of elective surgeries! It is nevertheless important to note that the vast majority of the populations in China and India (the two countries they regularly identify) are poor and the numbers of abortions being discussed cannot all be taking place among the wealthy in those countries. Let's not confuse the origins of a practice with the processes that sustain it in a widespread way. The rich set the example that those further down the socio-economic ladder emulate.

That said, gender norms - pervasive - powerful norms that work to the ongoing extreme disadvantage of girls and women - are not restricted to the poor and ignorant. They work their magic among the wealthy and putatively cosmopolitan as well. I would suggest that it is precisely those norms - embodying as they do traditional views of women and their worth - that are the problem in all this. Douthat and Last are way too quick to finger "choice" generally and choice about abortion specifically as the most important causal factor in this tale. But, Last's bald assertion notwithstanding, "choice" is not simply choice; we make choices under more or less restrictive and distorting conditions. And in the case at hand, it seems, prospective parents are choosing in the context of, among other things, highly asymmetrical gender social norms.

Here is a passage from this post at The Economist* that makes the point nicely:
But we need to keep in mind that sex-selective abortion is an effect of social problems as much as a cause. While Mr Douthat seems to suggest more widespread access to abortion as the culprit, that is not the only cause of the gendercide—many baby girls are simply killed—and where sex-selective abortion is the cause it is only a proximate one. Sex-selective abortion is symptomatic of societies in which women are sufficiently marginalised, socially, economically, or politically, that people believe it is better for them not to be born. The consequences of the lopsided gender ratios that result are troubling and will become more serious over time. However, the tragedy here is the oppression of women, not the future disadvantages accruing to men who won't have access to a sufficient supply of potential wives. If female empowerment has led to more baby girls not being born, that can be taken as a measure of the vast disenfranchisement that still exists, and an indicator of the progress that is yet to be made.
The marginalization of women, in other words, is pervasive and reflects not just economic factors but social norms as well.

Douthat is concerned about unborn babies, Last has moved on - with barely concealed relief - to another more "important" topic, namely Legos; neither gives much of a hoot about the well-being of women, at least really existing ones. And that is the truly disturbing feature of their entire approach to this matter.

If our two conservatives were concerned with real live women and their well-being, they might see that Hvistendahl's proposed policy remedy - imposed and enforced restrictions on sex-selective abortion procedures - hardly is the only reform option. They might follow Amartya Sen (whose provocative work on wildly unbalanced sex ratios in the populations of a range of developing countries both prompted Hvistendahl in the first place and draws Douthat's flip disdain) when he suggests we might really work at empowering women. This would not entail simply taking traditional gender norms as inviolable and allowing women choices within the set of practices and relations those norms sustain, but reforming a broad range of options available to women - in terms of property ownership, meaningful access to labor markets and education, and so forth. Widening such options for women might actually subvert traditional gender norms. That, however, would require our conservatives to be concerned not only with consequences, but with the actualities of how asymmetrical gender norms not only dis-empower women in more or less systematic ways but reproduce themselves over time.
* You can find a helpful report from The Economist - hardly a feminist rag - on the broad problems at issue in all this here.


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