Every so often, there comes an article that so misses the forest for the trees, you get whiplash when your eyes jerk back to re-read it. Such is The Atlantic’s recent piece: “Should a Woman be able to Abort a Fetus Just because it’s Female?”
Of course it’s not, your mind screams before reading the piece which wavers on the question. Sex-selective abortions aren’t new; in fact they’re called "female feticide" in India where it happens all the time and where it’s common to see kindergartens with hardly any female children. I did a four-part series on this back in 2007. More on that in a minute.
First, the current discussion at The Atlantic:
Over the past year, Indiana hasn’t exactly been a leader in anti-discrimination law. Last spring, the state faced massive protests and boycott threats for legislation that may have facilitated discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. And this winter, nascent efforts to pass LGBT protections in hiring, housing, and public accommodations quickly failed.
But in March, the state did pass nearly unprecedented discrimination protections for one group: unborn fetuses. The new law prohibits abortions sought because of “race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability.” Doctors who perform them can be held liable in a lawsuit and sanctioned by Indiana’s medical boards.
Pro-life advocates celebrated the law’s passage. Indiana’s legislators wanted to make sure “ours is a policy that values life no matter who you are, where you come from or what your disability might be,” as the bill’s sponsor, Casey Cox, said.
But whether they intended to or not, these lawmakers exposed a set of difficult moral questions that pro-choice progressives tend to ignore in their quest to defend legal abortion. Should couples be able to abort their female fetuses -- and it’s almost always female fetuses -- in the hopes of having the boy they really wanted? Should a mom, ashamed at having a mixed-race baby, be able to abort because of race? Should parents give up on a baby with Down syndrome? What about Tay-Sachs, which almost always kills children by the time they turn four?
The Atlantic, by the way, is one of the few publications that uses "pro-life" and "pro-choice" designations rather than that pro-abortion-rights/anti-abortion lingo that many newspapers are using. That is good. And the rest of the article does explore the moral ambiguities that liberals face when they try to match the wishes of disability-rights groups (which tend to argue against abortion if the child will be handicapped) against that of abortion-rights groups that want to abort for any reason.
What’s problematic is the article quotes no conservatives nor backers of this bill. What this feature has is a long conversation among people who want unlimited access to abortion and who can’t bring themselves to admit the backers of this law have outfoxed them. Anyone going up against the law, after all, can be accused of wanting to abort black or brown or female or handicapped babies.
So the piece simply accuses the backers of hypocrisy and using the disabled as a political pawn.
But just because they draft morally challenging legislation, pro-life lawmakers in Indiana aren’t necessarily intending to engage with the moral ambiguity of abortion.
“I think that, unfortunately, in this bill, people with disabilities were used to push forward a political agenda [of] some of the right-to-life organizations that, honestly, have never cared about disability-related issues in the past,” Dodson said.
It’s truly too bad the author only made a passing reference to the monstrosity that is the world center for gender-selective abortion.
In India, it’s a cause that cuts across all religions. The orange-clad man whose photo is shown here (in the thumbnail photo out front) is Swami Agnivesh, a social activist in New Delhi. He places the responsibility for massive gender imbalances in India at the feet of a Hindu religious establishment that favors son-preference.
And the woman shown with this article holding the two children is Varsha Hitkari, a young woman I found in Kanpur, a fetid, overcrowded metropolis of 2.6 million in Uttar Pradesh state that’s known for its tanneries. After bearing two daughters and no sons, her husband tried to strangle her. One of her brothers rescued her, but she was in a coma for six weeks and was still wrestling with brain damage when we dropped by.
The entire 2007 series lies at the bottom of my web site here and it's hard to read the pieces, which took us from Delhi to Haryana state, to the cities of Bangalore, Kanpur, Lucknow, Jaipur and others. We researched how once pregnant Indian women find out at 20 weeks gestation that their child is a girl, the abortion rate is stunning. We unsuccessfully tried interviewing the heads of General Electric in Bangalore. The company helped manufacture the cheap ultrasound machines that helped women learn the sex of their child -- and plan on whether to keep or abort their offspring.
There is a rage that overtakes you after three weeks of talking with people about this evil. The way this thing polled out among religious groups is that Jains and Sikhs had the highest abortion rates, followed by Hindus. After all, it’s a Hindu proverb that says, "May you be the mother of 100 sons."
Christians had the lowest rates. However, resistance to gender-selection abortion cut across religious lines. I met some amazing Sikh physicians who were fighting this trend and who had taken massive losses professionally for their stand.
And these are the voices that The Atlantic article ignored. Instead of a dispassionate piece about the politics of anti-abortion bills, why not do some research among expatriate Indian communities in the United States to see if immigrants are practicing "female feticide" here? That was an angle I longed to put into my story, but there was no room.
And are other immigrant groups doing it? One thinks of the Chinese who come from a country that until recently, pushed a one-child policy for decades that encouraged women to abort girl fetuses until they were pregnant with a boy. There comes a time when reporters need to stop scorning a proposed law simply because Republicans are behind it and instead draw us a picture of the horrors it’s trying to prevent. They need to cover the voices on both sides of this painful debate.
You don't have to go to India to do that. The answer may be here at home.
Photos by Julia Duin.