OTTAWA — In some parts of North America, it’s a big deal; in others, just a dirty little secret.
Gendercide is the clever term newly coined by The Economist for the abortion over the years of between 80 million and 100 million more female unborn babies than males in Asia.
While the British magazine’s March 4 story was mainly focused on the negative socioeconomic impact of a 20% deficit in child bearers in places such as China and northern India, it noted that the problem exists among Asian-American populations as well.
But while American states and the U.S. Congress contemplate laws against the practice, Canadian doctors mull protocols.
Now a medical professor and a medical ethicist have issued a joint plea to medical personnel across Canada to withhold the gender of their unborn babies as revealed by ultrasound until they are 20 weeks into gestation and past the time most Canadian hospitals will do abortions. Aborting babies for no reason at all raises no hackles north of the border. But in Canada, aborting them because they are female looks like a human rights offence.
Or so say medical professor Allison Thiele and ethicist Brendan Leier. In their report in the January Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, they note that fetal sex “selection” — their codeword for abortion — is a violation of either “basic human rights or medical ethics” and is opposed by 92% of Canadians.
Nonetheless, government data indicate ratios ranging from 116-to-100 to 109-to-100 of male to female children in communities in British Columbia with large Asian minorities and slightly lower ratios in similar communities in Ontario.
A similar trend has emerged in the United States with respect to children of Korean, Chinese and Indian immigrants, according to a 2008 report published by the National Academy of Sciences. After each successive female child without any male children, these families were increasingly likely to abort unborn girls, the numbers suggested. After two female offspring, families in these ethnic groups were aborting half their female offspring.
Doctors are in a dilemma, say Thiele and Leier, because their professional organizations condemn sex-selected abortion but also require them to disclose information fully to patients, including ultrasound results. To escape the dilemma, they propose a bit of a trick: simply don’t notice, note or record the gender of the fetus during the ultrasound, and so have nothing to report on that score to the parents. This, states the report, is already the practice among British Columbia doctors.
Only in early April did the report make headlines. It was immediately attacked from both sides. John Hof, president of British Columbia Campaign Life, said, “Pardon me if I’m not cheering that doctors have finally found a spine. It’s high time they found the moral code book. I have one question for them: why are you only in favor of killing boy babies?”
Hof notes that ultrasound results can still be obtained from private ultrasound clinics in British Columbia or nearby Washington state, regardless of what doctors choose to do.
Pro-Life and Pro-Abortion Activists Critical
On the other side of the abortion divide, Joyce Arthur, director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, also faulted the doctors for inconsistency.
Withholding information from women was simply “paternalistic because it imposes someone else’s values onto the woman.”
“Being pro-choice means the woman gets to decide for her own reasons and we don’t have to agree with them to support her right to abortion. Women do not have to state a reason for abortion in Canada,” she told the Register.
Arthur said her group certainly opposes the social or cultural biases leading to gender-based abortion but believes the best cure to be “education campaigns to spark a cultural shift.” Attempts to withhold gender information would simply fail, she maintains, as British Columbia families seeking it would just drive south to Washington ultrasound clinics.
Arthur was equally dismissive of laws to ban sex-selected abortions outright, which, she says, were tried in India but failed.
Not true, says Steve Mosher, president of the Virginia-based pro-life Population Research Institute, and a keen observer of the Canadian debate. India tried banning ultrasound to determine gender, not the abortions themselves, he says, but the law proved unenforceable.
Mosher says the problem has emerged as a combination of traditional socioeconomic biases against female children, the availability of modern ultrasound technology and political pressure to restrict populations.
“I was in China when the government brought in the ‘one family-one child’ policy,” Mosher told the Register. “This was before ultrasound, so instead of aborting females before birth they killed them at birth. Midwives kept a bucket of cold water beside the bed to drown the baby if it was female.”
The preference for males is strongly economic, says Mosher. In China, the eldest son looks after the parents in their old age; the daughters marry and look after her husband’s parents. But before the one family-one child law, Chinese families might keep having daughters until they had a son. And when each daughter married, her parents received a payment from the groom’s family. Now, with only one chance for a son, many female children are doomed.
‘Too Many Daughters Can Bankrupt You’
In Northern India, the bride’s family pays the groom’s family a dowry for her support, one of the traditions behind gender-selected abortion there. “Too many daughters can bankrupt you,” said Mosher.
The Indian government has banned gender selection, but “there is a de facto two-child limit in India,” said Mosher. “Public office is closed to those with big families, and government handouts of fertilizer, for example.”
Mosher says laws designed to stop sex-selective abortions in North America would see most doctors comply, if only because such laws would be most effective if aimed at doctors rather than mothers. “The law is first of all a teacher,” he said. “Most Americans and immigrants would comply.”
Oklahoma has just passed such a law, says Mosher, while the Georgia Legislature is considering it. “A bill is sitting in Congress now,” he said. “With the next election in November, I expect a resurgence in elected representatives supportive of pro-life causes.” He thinks it has a good chance to pass.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.