The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Sex Selective Abortion Gains Ground in the West

Two startling stories about sex selective abortion in the West hit papers this week. First is one about Dr. Mark Hobart, an Australian doctor who is under investigation for refusing to preform a sex selective abortion and then failing to refer the couple seeking the abortion to another doctor. Dr. Hobart could lose his job or even his medical license. The investigation has apparently been going on for five months now, but it has just started to generate more media and political attention, with an MP recently speaking out on his behalf.

There are circumstances that mitigate the importance of this case in civilizational terms: Dr. Hobart is receiving a lot of support from the public, and the investigation itself may have been politically motivated. Moreover, the couple originally seeking the abortion was Indian, so the whole incident may say more about cultural norms in that country than in the West.

But when viewed in conjunction with the news out of Britain, the picture begins to look more troubling. In recent weeks, the British government has decided not to prosecute two doctors who were caught on tape agreeing to arrange sex-selective abortions. One defense the government has offered of its position is that it would be impossible to determine if the abortions were preformed solely for gender reasons, or if, in addition to the gender reasons, there were also other health factors involved.

And yet new guidance issued by the British Medical Association states that “there may be circumstances, in which termination of pregnancy on grounds of fetal sex would be lawful.” Keir Starmer, England’s Director of Public Prosecutions, followed up on the BMA memo, arguing “The law does not, in terms, expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions; rather it prohibits any abortion carried out without two medical practitioners having formed a view, in good faith, that the health risks of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination.”

We’re not lawyers here at Via Meadia, but even we can see how a medical establishment committed to the view that sex selective abortions are sometimes appropriate could wiggle its way out of that language. When you pair that with recent investigations finding that UK doctors often sign off on abortions without investigating the woman’s motives for seeking one, you have an environment ripe for abuse of the spirit of the law, if not the letter.

Published on October 9, 2013 7:00 pm
  • Pete

    More on the Democrats’ war on women.

  • Andrew Allison

    Oh dear! VM goes off the rails twice in one day. In Australia, the legality of abortion is determined (as it should be in the US) state by state. If the abortion is legal (which it presumably was since the couple requested it), it’s the couple’s, not the doctor’s decision to make. The situation in Britain is more complicated, since the grounds for a legitimate abortion are nationwide and clearly defined. Which would VM prefer for a couple who decide, however reprehensibly, to abort a child, a back-ally abortion or a safe one? The problem with the US pro-life movement in my mind is that if the mother is in a relationship, the father has a voice; and if the mother is a minor, the parents have a voice. But if both parents of an unborn child agree, wouldn’t WRM concede that it’s between them and their maker, not their doctor.

    • Tom

      There is an automatic 50% death rate for persons having abortions performed upon them.
      Forgive me if I do not find this “safe.”

      • Andrew Allison

        I didn’t imply that it was “safe”, just that like smoking, drunk driving or unsafe sex, as long as it’s legal it’s a matter of personal choice.

        • Montgomery Draxel

          Medical science is finding out that developing children in the mother display signs of life, like this thing called a heartbeat and brain activity.

          I know, science, right?

          • Andrew Allison

            The subject was whether life begins at conception. You apparently believe that it begins when there are “signs of life”. Abortion legislation asserts that life begins with fetal viability. In the majority opinion delivered by the court in Roe v. Wade,
            viability was defined as “potentially able to live outside the mother’s
            womb, albeit with artificial aid. Viability is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks.” In Australia, it’s 20.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Perhaps a more useful debate might be about when HUMAN life begins? Is a 1 month old fetus alive? Perhaps…but I would suggest that we could agree that it is not human. Is a 32 week old fetus human? That is a bit murkier….

          • Andrew Allison

            With respect, that is the debate, the consensus among objective observers being at about 24 weeks.

          • f1b0nacc1

            ah, but a consensus changes with time and technology…do you really mean to tie a fundamental right to something that fluid?

          • Andrew Allison

            Come now, you can do better than that (grin). If the law changes, so be it, until then, viability is the determinant. BTW, there’s no legal argument that a 32-week fetus is not human — 28 weeks is the maximum, 20 the minimum that I’ve seen.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You miss my point. I am not arguing that the law cannot (or should not) change, but rather that the underlying rationale for the law (in this case viability) is rather shaky to begin with. Yes, you can change the law (indeed you must!), but too many changes and the law begins to be perceived as more of an arbitrary choice, rather than some sort of guiding principle.
            I am not at all disputing that when circumstances change, one must alter ones ideas to accomodate them (the only thing Keynes ever said that made sense!), but at the same time, I worry about the viability of law based entirely upon expediency.

          • Andrew Allison

            I took your point. My argument is that the historic rationale for a law is irrelevant: if it’s a bad law, change it, until then, obey it.

            I must take issue (in the friendliest way) with your presumption that the law is readily changed on the basis of expediency — witness the number of patently ridiculous laws with which we are stuck.

            Much as I would like to our discussion at length, I fear that we are getting a long way from the subject of the thread, namely, what should a doctor do when faced with a request for a, presumably legal, abortion.

        • Mark

          No, science can come up with a definition using facts, not beliefs, of what life is: functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.
          You want to talk “ensoulment”, now that is a belief that you can take up with your minister, but shouldn’t factor in our laws that are applied equally to all people.

          • Andrew Allison

            This is the second time you’ve brought up an irrelevant argument. There’s been no discussion of “ensoulment” (another belief system). That a fetus becomes entitled to the protection of the state upon reaching viability, i.e. the ability to survive outside the womb, is the law of the land. If you disagree with it, get it changed.

          • Mark

            The main point of my comment is that science has a definition of what life is, and an embryo fits that. I brought up ensoulment because a significant minority of the population find this important, but that it is a personal belief unrelated to the science.
            Viability is an interesting concept in relationship to human rights, but most people consider human rights absolute (see the Declaration of Independence (of the US)). Viability today in an advanced hospital has been as short a time as 20wks 3 days. In a 3rd world country, I imagine it would be closer to 32 wks. 20 years ago viability was pushing the 24-26 wk period (in an advanced hospital). In 20 years from today, where will it be? 18wks, 12wks, at conception itself? So to use viability as the determinant factor is to decide that a baby at say Children’s Hospital in DC is more human, more important than a baby delivered by a midwife in rural Jamaica. That babies weren’t as human (or at least human at the same time) a few decades ago, but will be in a few more decades. Human rights apply to all people in all times. Slavery 150 years ago in the US was accepted by society, but is still a violation of human rights and was wrong. Leaving unwanted babies on a hillside 2000 years ago in Rome was accepted but still wrong. Human rights are absolute. If you allow people to pick who and when somebody is human and deserving of basic rights, you allow for persection and genocide of whole peoples.
            If the law is immoral or unethical in relation to human rights, everyone has a duty to disobey it. Just following orders never relieves you of responsibility.

          • Andrew Allison

            You continue to obfuscate. The question is when does an embryo become human. The consensus answer is when it achieves viability (whenever that is decided to be). Simply put, before achieving viability an embryo has no human rights (they belong to its parents). Your opinion may differ, but the fact is that every country which has legalized abortion has established that standard.
            Who is to decide that those laws are immoral or unethical? You? One might argue that the desire to exert is power over a woman’s right to choose is as psychotic as those of your rapist.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Let me start by saying that I agree with your assertion that the best way to handle Abortion is to do it state-by-state. Let me also stipulate that while I have deep reservations about abortion, I reluctantly but firmly believe that this is a matter for a woman to decide.
      With that said, I don’t believe that you are giving the ‘prohibitionists’ a fair shake when you suggest that their objections are similar to those who opposed alcohol, drugs, etc. Unlike these substances, the pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder, thus the idea of a ‘live and let live’ regime is anathema to them. We may disagree with them, but surely you would concede that given their beliefs, their opposition is hardly irrational. This fundamental disagreement (I believe that human life begins at the moment of birth, while a pro-lifer would argue that it begins at conception) makes any sort of compromise a temporary tactical matter for BOTH sides at best…

      • Andrew Allison

        I share your belief about when life begins. I also respect the belief of pro-lifers not to engage in abortion, and to try and convince others of their belief. What’s not acceptable is to impose a belief (any belief) on someone who believes differently.

        In the present case, if a doctor’s beliefs prohibits him from taking an action, he has an obligation to refer the patient to a practitioner who believes differently.

        • f1b0nacc1

          The problem with this (and I say again, we are on the same sheet of music in terms of our own positions here) is that if you believe someone is comitting murder (and I mean genuinely believe it, not simply suggest it as part of rhetorical excess), then you are morally compelled to stop them, not simply try to convince them to change their wishes. One might suggest that this is something of a natural law argument, I know, but whether you or I accept the position of the pro-lifers or not, they sincerely believe that this is the case. We can either try to reason with them on that basis or not, but we cannot simply ignore their position…
          If we ran across a devout muslim who was about to kill a man for insulting the Prophet, would we attempt to reason with him, and if reason failed, simply stand by while he killed his victim? After all, he did NOT believe that his act was criminal, in fact he believed that it was a religious necessity for him to engage in it. Yet, it is murder to us…

          • Andrew Allison

            A fellow Jesuit I see ;<)}
            Murder is illegal and abortion of a non-viable fetus is not, ergo, abortion is not murder in the eyes of society.
            Equally, belief does not excuse what society has decided is a criminal act so yes, we have a duty to prevent the devout from killing non-believers.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The Jesuits would be quite unhappy with most of my beliefs, but thank you for the compliment!
            We may be talking past one another here though….the point of my example was not what society defines as a criminal act (which society, by the way?…in a globalized world, that is hardly a trivial question unless you are a Kiplingist like myself…grin), but rather what the perpetrator and the observer consider crimes. The devout muslim would argue that an individual who blaphemed against the prophet was unworthy of the protections afforded to a human being, and thus his life was forfeit, hence societies proscriptions against murder did not apply. You are (and again, I agree) making the same argument in the case of a fetus, it is not human, so there is no murder. To the pro-lifer, who DOES believe that the fetus is alive (and human), this is not the case, and hence it is murder, not simply a personal choice.
            Your last comment (“We have a duty to prevent the devout from killing non-believers”) is well taken, but you might want to consider that this cuts both ways. There is no question that (to use my previous example) the devout muslim would find many reasons to kill a non-believer, and that we as a society must in fact act to prevent this. Can you not imagine the position of a pro-lifer who sees in a secular feminism an equal religious devotion that is being used to justify murder? Whether or not you agree with this point of view (and sadly enough, in many abortion supporters, I see this sort of quasi-religious devotion), surely you cannot deny that the logic of their position (if you accepted their initial assumptions) is sound.
            Part of the problem is that we seem to privilege some quasi-religious beliefs (example: modern environmentalism) as uniquely acceptable, while rejecting other religious beliefs out of hand. The biggest problem wtih Roe v Wade (and really the Casey decision almost 20 years later) was that it provided no basis for compromise or withdrawal…Abortion was legal everywhere wtihout restriction and without any tolerated dissent. This left those with concerns about the procedure no realistic way to pursue any sort of compromise position, and thus who were comfortable with it no incentive to pursue any compromise.

          • Andrew Allison

            The point which I was trying to make is that in any society of laws, laws outweigh beliefs (else they would be meaningless). Thus it is my belief (grin) that criminal acts should be prevented and that, where legal, abortion of a non-viable fetus is not a crime regardless of belief.
            Beliefs, like beauty, lie in the eye of the beholder, but if you don’t agree with a law, change it, don’t violate it.
            IMHO, the biggest problem with Roe v Wade is that abortion is clearly a States Rights issue. Making a federal case of it (sorry) resulted in a war with no end in sight.

          • f1b0nacc1

            We agree more than we disagree….
            You keep assuming though that just because the law as written represents a set of beliefs that those beliefs are somehow different (“better”?) than others…they are not. We have codified one set of beliefs in our existing law, but others exist and unless we wish to say “these beliefs win, because I say so” (which is the ultimate truth of any government) we are fooling ourselves.
            This is why I lean libertarian, and why I deeply distrust government of any sort. It is also why I tend to believe that most of this should be a state’s rights matter…that limits the arbitrariness of the law itself. With that said, it is STILL arbitrary…we must never forget that even if the logic of circumstances forces us to embrace it.

          • Andrew Allison

            I clearly haven’t made myself clear: it’s my opinion that, whether or not we personally agree with them, laws must supersede beliefs. If you don’t like a law, try and change it, don’t violate it. Absent the rule of law, which requires (strictly limited — I’m a paleolibertarian myself) government, we have anarchy.

          • Mark

            Interesting. You have just thrown the whole civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s out the window. Laws changed because of civil disobedience, because people were willing to break unjust laws to force them to change. Without that movement, it is doubtful that we would have as just (though imperfect) society that we do. I do hold laws above beliefs, but I hold justice and mercy above laws. Laws are simply an imperfect man’s attempt to implement those higher concepts. When he fails, the laws must be changed even if it means breaking them until society realizes the injustice of them.

        • Mark

          “What’s not acceptable is to impose a belief (any belief) on someone who believes differently.” All out laws are beliefs imposing on other people, some who agree with them and some who don’t. A pedophile believes he is born that way, so what he does is okay. A psychotic serial killer sees nothing wrong in taking the lives of others. A rapist just wants to exert is power over someone. You’re okay with these because you don’t want to impose your belief on him?

          • f1b0nacc1

            I didn’t suggest ‘ensoulment’ was my criteria, though I concede that is a creative concept…

            What criteria do you want to use? I accept ‘birth’ because I don’t believe that there is any other viable way to do it. “viability” is nonsense (you are essentially arguing that with each medical advance, the frontier of a woman’s right to physical autonomy will retreat slightly), conception leaves a woman has an incubator, with all sorts of room for legislative mischief to boot, etc.

            You have a great faith in science, but this isn’t a scientific problem, it is a semantic one. “What art man, that thou is mindful of him….”

          • Andrew Allison

            You appear incapable of grasping the argument that law must supersede belief because otherwise law would have no meaning.

            I don’t need to impose my beliefs on a law-breaker, or anybody else.

          • Mark

            And you appear incapable of grasping the concept that laws are just beliefs imposed by whatever authority has that power in that country, be it an absolute monarchy, a republic, or a democracy. By imposing a law on someone, you are imposing a belief on them.

  • Blubb

    I’d say 99% of sex selective abortions in Europe are not committed by natives.

    • avery12

      We have wondered (at our house) if sex selective abortions may be why Mohammed (with spelling variants) is one of the most popular boys names in the UK, but there is no comparably popular muslim girls name.

  • lhfry

    Sex selective abortion is one of those perfect examples of how what is often termed a private decision has societal impact (and I would argue that there are few “private decisions” that don’t). In countries that prefer boys, such as China and India, sex selective abortions are fairly common and the result has been, in China, as of 2009, an excess of more than 30 million males who will never find mates and benefit from the civilizing influence of marriage.
    Some predicted a rise in violence and war mongering as a result but the immediate impact has been the buying and selling of females, including children. This is a ghastly situation, but is the logical result of permitting unregulated abortion based on the choice model. Once choice became the standard, then it was inevitable that many choices would be harmful yet acceptable in our narcissistic culture.
    As “reproductive choice” became the standard, reproductive technology expanded and poor countries such as India are operating baby farms for mostly western customers. This is a road down which we should not have gone, but it’s hard to see how it can be slowed, let alone stopped.

  • free_agent

    In the US context, it’s not clear what could be changed, since there’s no legal restraint on motives for abortion.

    But in the broader context, I’d like to see an explanation of why sex-selective abortion is so popular in some countries. Obviously, if women are less than 50% of the population, girls will become scarce commodities (which is expressed in various ways, some fairly benign and some quite evil), which should start to bias parents toward desiring girls. And the conventional observation is that richer parents prefer boys, while poorer parents prefer girls (and take better care of their girls). (The evolutionary psychologists have a theory for this.) But these expectations seem to be violated in the case of India. (Or is it that the Indians we hear about are all affluent (in the Indian context)?)

    • Jane the Actuary

      In those countries where there’s a shortage of girls, this has not led, in a supply-and-demand sort of way, to their being more highly prized. To the contrary, in China, it’s led to trafficking, for example, of North Korean women who think they’re headed to a more benign job or are just plain kidnapped.

  • wigwag

    Sex selective abortion is disgusting; so is aborting fetuses merely because they are destined to be born disabled with conditions like Down Syndrome or other forms of trisomy.

    Feminists and other leftists should be appalled by sex selective abortions and the abortion of the disabled. One major reason they are not is because of the stupidity (and in many cases repugnance) of the pro life community. No one with a brain in their heads would want to ally themselves with the pro-life movement.

    Had the pro-life movement spent the past 40 years trying to win hearts and minds rather than berating feminism, opposing birth control, expressing a hostility to premarital sex and criticizing the secular majority, maybe abortion would be less socially acceptable than it is now; like smoking is.

    Instead, foes of abortion tried to intimidate women walking into abortion providers, secretly or not so secretly cheering criminals who murder doctors who perform abortions and pass laws threatening to throw doctors who perform abortions into prison.

    It’s remarkable that the Catholic and Evangelical churches that are at the heart of the anti abortion movement ever thought that this strategy would work. It’s just another example of everything the right wing supports turning into garbage. To make matters worse, what have churches on both the left and the right achieved with their political rhetoric? The pews are empty and America’s young are increasingly alienated from religion.

    To repeat; sex selective abortion and the abortion of the disabled are disgusting. If those who oppose these practices gave up on trying to overturn Roe v Wade or pass state legislation sure to be deemed unconstitutional and instead engaged both the left and the center of the American political realm with respect and intelligent arguments they might accomplish something.

    Unfortunately like the rest of their right of center brethren, most abortion foes are too dense to get it.

    The one positive development is that the new Pope just might get it.

    • dwpittelli

      “merely because they are destined to be born disabled with conditions like Down Syndrome or other forms of trisomy”

      Most other forms of trisomy are uniformly fatal before birth or at young age, not to mention that Down syndrome has a number of awful aspects well beyond mental retardation, and is nothing at all comparable to being female vs. male. So the word “merely” in your comment makes no sense at all. (Not that the rest makes sense either.)

      • wigwag

        There are several forms of trisomy that are not necessarily fatal. As for Down Syndrome, nobody is suggesting that it is an easy condition to live with for the family or the person born with it.
        To me, the idea that a person destined to be born with Down Syndrome should be aborted is ethically repugnant. With early intervention, children with Down Syndrome and other developmental disorders have a far brighter future than they once did. It is not unusual for kids with Down Syndrome to graduate high school and, in a small number of cases, even college.
        To me, the idea that these children should be aborted because of their condition is horrifying. The suggesting that you need to be intellectually intelligent and physically fit to have the right to live should be highly troubling.
        With all of that said, I understand perfectly well that these are merely my views; I don’t think the law should enshrine my views at the expense of the views of the parents who are in the best position to act as surrogate decision makers for their unborn fetuses.
        That’s why I think that trying to outlaw abortion is not only wrong; its fool hearty. As we’ve learned over many decades now, the strategy doesn’t work. If more evidence is needed of the idiocy of abortion foes, I would like to know what it is.
        I think Americans are fair minded and kind hearted. That’s why I believe that convincing them that aborting a fetus either because it is female or in some way disabled, should be possible.
        What abortion foes need to learn is that you rarely succeed in recruiting allies when you introduce yourself to those you would like to convince by spitting in their faces.

        • dwpittelli

          “There are several forms of trisomy that are not necessarily fatal; for example, kids with Edwards Syndrome (Trisomy 18) survive; sometimes to the age of 10.”

          Talk about self-refuting! What is truly “disgusting” is to condemn as disgusting those who decide to abort an embryo/fetus/baby with such a horrible disease. The majority of fetuses with the syndrome die before birth. Those born have heart abnormalities, kidney malformations, and other internal organ disorders, and die before age 10, as you say.

    • Nick Bidler

      so your argument is ‘abortions is bad, too bad the right had to bungle handling it, thus making it unpopular to oppose it?’

      question – the repubs only endorse causes that the dems oppose, ‘abortion’ has been deemed a ‘woman’s right,’ thus sacred to the dems. the only people who cared about abortion were moralistic busybodies. to remain competitive, the repubs had to welcome them in. is it not a little weird that your knee-jerk reaction is to blame politics and bad marketing?

    • avery12

      I’d like to do the right thing, but those right wingers are so uncool I wouldn’t like to be seen sitting at their lunch table. I know they are uncool because the democrats keep telling me so.
      We really need to raise the bar.

    • http://waxingerratic.tumblr.com/ ECM

      That’s nice except for one important point, concern troll:

      Pro-lifers are currently winning the argument, at least in America.

    • Ooga Booga

      Damn straight wigwag. Ignore the rightist critics; you’ve hit the nail on the head yet again.

  • BlackBettysBlog

    Does anybody know if one sex is being selected for abortion more than the other? If so, which is which?

    • Montgomery Draxel

      Females are being aborted in large numbers by asian (Chinese and Indian) couples.

      This has disastrous consequences for the future of communities and nations that look the other way.

      What do you think China is going to do with all of those excess young males? Build the worlds’ largest man cave?

      If I were bordering China I’d be really worried.

      • Andrew Allison

        I’d be really worried if I were the Chinese government — insufficient girls means insufficient births, which means decline. Unless of course you are suggesting a repeat of the Rape of the Sabine Women, which was actually the (forcible) acquisition of wives by single Romans (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women)

      • BlackBettysBlog

        I know the murder rate in China and India. Mead’s column is about the west, so my question is about the west. geez.

  • Tom Myers

    Everything will work out fine as long as more boys are aborted than girls. If not, all h*ll will break loose.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Then consider all heck as having broken loose…

      • Tom Myers

        Talking about the West fibonacci, not China.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Based on the data we have from Europe, Canada, and the US (not to mention Japan, which is sort of ‘honorary West’), I merely repeat, all heck has broken loose.

      • Tom Myers

        Oh, I didn’t know women consistently checked on the sex of their unwanted pregnancies before deciding to have them terminated. Is it more prestigious in the single mother world to have a boy than a girl. Or maybe unmarried fathers are more likely to pony up cash for boys than girls. You know boys need more financial resources. Football gear and all that kind of stuff.

        My apologies,

        Dumb Male