Sex Selection in the United States and India: A Contextualist Feminist Approach
Several studies have shown that the ratio of girls to boys has drastically decreased in some countries in the last few decades. China and India are usually cited as countries where the starkest disparities exist. The normal at-birth ratio for boys to girls is 1000 boys to 952 girls. Yet the overall ratio across India is 1000 boys to 943 girls, according to the 2011 census. Many assume that this greater sex ratio gap in India is due to sex selection.
Anti-abortion legislators and groups in the United States have pointed to the widespread practice of sex selection in India and have begun to import (often inaccurate) information about India to lobby for, and in many cases successfully enact, state-wide sex selection bans in the United States. Five states have passed sex selection bans; bills are pending to ban sex selection abortion in ten states, and a federal bill has been reintroduced in Congress.
Sex selection can be achieved by means other than an abortion, including sperm sorting (which sorts sperm carrying the X and Y chromosomes before artificial insemination is used to implant the sperm of the desired sex) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (whereby embryos are fertilized in vitro, tested for sex, and then implanted into the uterus). However, the statutes that have been enacted and the bills that have been proposed in the United States do not limit pre-implantation sex selection, but only sex selection if it involves aborting a fetus.
An analysis of the recent legislative hearings in Arizona and in Congress reveals extensive references to sex selection in India and other countries to support enacting laws in the United States. On the other hand, Illinois (in 1984) and Pennsylvania (in 1989) adopted sex selection bans before this recent legislative push by anti-abortion groups. In analyzing the legislative hearings from those states, I found that supporters of bans in those two states did not use global sex ratio trends or depictions of sex selection abortion in other countries in lobbying to enact those laws.
The issue of sex selection is dividing people who consider themselves pro-choice in the United States because equality for women appears on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, one could argue that sex selection should not be permitted because some people may be aborting female fetuses because of a culture of “son preference” that values boys more than girls. On the other hand, prohibiting sex selection constrains women’s autonomy over their bodies. The issue of sex selection places women who typically value autonomy rights in a dilemma, causing many to support sex selection bans in the United States or to be agnostic about the issue.
Pro-choice groups have typically taken universal positions on sex selection bans—they should not be put into place in the United States, India, or elsewhere. In line with liberal feminist thought, this position gives primary weight to the right to autonomy of the woman without any limitations. Feminists who take universal positions on the issue (i.e., that sex selection abortion should not be banned in any country) may not have engaged with the true reality of the situation in other countries. As a result, they are not able to effectively counter the inaccurate framing and importation of information on sex selection abortion from India.
By engaging with the reality and complexities of the situation in India, pro-choice organizations in the United States will be better able to paint a more accurate narrative of sex selection in India. This understanding will also help distinguish the situation in the United States from India more appropriately. I propose a contextualist feminist approach that prioritizes women’s equality, but recognizes that if the practice of sex selection is widespread, it likely reflects and perpetuates inequality of women and girls in society.
Part 1 of this article provides an overview of the development and use of sex selection abortion in India. Part 2 describes the use of sex selection abortion as part of a legislative strategy to restrict abortion rights by anti-abortion groups in the United States. Part 3 describes how information about what is happening globally is in fact influencing policymaking in the United States. Part 4 provides an overview of some of the main feminist approaches to sex selection. Part 5 develops a framework that uses the lens of women’s equality to understand sex selection.