Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Is there anything wrong with sex-selective abortion?

Photo Credit: Marcus Hansson
Over at Oxford's always interesting "Practical Ethics" blog, Nicholas Shackel addresses the question of sex-selective abortion (that is, choosing to have an abortion based on the sex of the fetus), a hot topic in British politics.

He concludes that if we think abortion is broadly permissible, then we must also think that sex-selective abortion must be permissible. Essentially his argument is that if an action is permissible, then the reasons we have for carrying out said action cannot make it impermissible. However, this conclusion is a mistake. (What follows is a modified version of my comment left on Shackel's post.)

There are, it seems to me, two reasons to object to abortion as a method of sex selection(and, indeed, any method of selecting the sex of a fetus):

(1) It shows a lack of proper respect for persons generally by exhibiting sexist prejudice. This is most plausible if it is female fetuses being aborted. In the same way we could think selective abortion of fetuses that we (if it were possible) could predict would grow up to be homosexual or transgender is wrong, or (as many believe) aborting fetuses we suspect will be disabled is wrong, we might think aborting female fetuses is wrong.

(2) It could have bad consequences, in particular, disrupting a (supposedly valuable) gender balance in the population.*

Either of these conditions could render certain abortive conditions wrong, even if we generally think there is a right to abortion. This is because the general permissibility of abortion could be seen as legal position rather than a moral one. And this, to my mind, is the most plausible view.

Even if we think abortion is morally generally permissible following either of the arguments Shackel mentions, this doesn’t entail that it’s never wrong to have an abortion. Suppose someone had an abortion even though they wanted and would have cared for the child lovingly, simply to spite a pro-natalist family member. That seems to be a bad reason to have an abortion, and that person would be open to moral criticism. But even though we might want to say this act was morally wrong, we wouldn’t want to criminalize this kind of abortion, for the same reason we don’t want to criminalize any number of morally wrong actions.

If we believe either (1) or (2) above, we might think that criminalizing sex-selective abortion would be appropriate. It certainly wouldn’t stop all cases of it, because as Shackel mentions, there are several work-arounds. But having prohibitions in place would offer some forms of disincentive, and might promote the kinds of norms we want promoted. And since many people in fact value honesty, even when it fails to help them achieve their ends, we might expect that fewer sex selective abortions would occur.

I don’t have a settled view on this, because I’m not sure how successful (1) and (2) are. But I do think there is a more of a legitimate argument here than Shackel seems to think.

*Some feminists who accept these arguments suggest we should permit sex selection in cases where families are just trying achieve a balance of these sexes of their own children. This is interesting, but it doesn't seem to me to actually avoid either the objections in either (1) or (2). If only families with female children opt for the balancing forms of sex-selective methods, then the problems re-emerge.

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