I came across this article on sex-selective abortion on The Rational Optimist (via Jad Abumrad‘s tweet), about the skewing of sex-ratios as access to wealth, abortions, and ultrasound technology increases. This, for example, is a map of China showing sex ratios by region. White areas have naturally-occurring ratios. The darker the red, the higher the skew towards males (and the richer the region). This kind of thing is happening in about half of the world’s countries, not just China, and it’s likely to increase as we get better at sperm-sorting and genetic manipulation.

This is a map of “son preference” by country:

I was caught off guard by one of the comments on the article. I realized that I had breezed past this section:

“Policy seems largely powerless to fight this problem. Sex-selective abortion is illegal in virtually all countries. China’s authoritarian “one-child policy” is in marked contrast with India’s more laissez-faire attitude to family planning, yet both have produced widespread killing of female fetuses.”

I read this focused on their point that different policies on family size were producing similar results in terms of sex-selective abortion. The part about sex-selective abortion being illegal did not catch my attention at all. And if it had really  caught my attention, I probably would have thought something like, “Oh, good for them. I wouldn’t have expected that in highly sexist cultures.” Then I read the comment:

“If a society permits abortion on demand (which many do), then it permits abortion on demand. Permitting abortion on demand *except* when this is used to achieve sex selection seems peculiarly inconsistent.”

Whenever I think seriously about abortion I am impressed by how difficult the ethics are to untangle. The simple, clearcut answers that my inner idealist wants are offered only by heavy duty idealogs, and those answers don’t make sense to me. And opinions tend to be so impassioned that it can be difficult–scary, even–to carry on a sustained conversation about it. I notice, even as I’m writing and editing this little piece, that I am tending to say less and less as time goes on…

I vote pro-choice, but that does not get to the complexities of the issue for me. My votes are acts of passing the buck to the individual women making those decisions, letting myself off the hook as best I can. At the same time, I  believe that fetal life has moral import, and feel myself getting more squeamish about abortion the more aesthetic the reasons for it. When I think about its use by people who have value-structures very different from my own to further their own cause, it is troubling. Sex-selective abortion is one clear example. Another is the rumors that the conservative support of Planned Parenthood has been a kind of race-selective abortion, because women of color are having more abortions than white women. Shudder.

Maybe I just want to avoid this discomfort, but I wish only women could vote on this issue, and let me the rest of the way off the hook about it.