Thursday, March 02, 2006

On Choice, Abortion and Multiculturalism

An interesting blog conversation has been going on about these questions. It was started by Jeff at Protein Wisdom who asked how feminists would evaluate the practice of aborting female fetuses in countries such as India. Aren't the women entitled to this choice, even if the choice itself is directed against the female sex and therefore inherently sexist? And what about all that multiculturalism, of all cultures being equally valuable? If the women in India regard girls as a burden, who are American feminists to say that they are wrong? But doesn't this situation put feminism into a tricky place? And is there any answer to the conflict in India or China except for improving the social valuing of girls and women so that female embryos wouldn't be aborted just because of their sex?

Jill at Feministe and Trish at Countess answered Jeff well and carefully, pointing out all the types of things that need to be pointed out: That there is no such thing as one feminist answer to Jeff's questions, that women in India are not truly free to determine whether they want to carry pregnancies to term or not, because their families and the society in general affect their choices, sometimes even forcing them to abort an embryo because it is female, and Jill, in particular, presents a good analysis of the inevitable conflict between feminism and Jeff's definition of multiculturalism. And they both point out how even the concern of the sex imbalance is driven by a patriarchal motive rather than the actual valuation of women: the worry that men don't have enough brides.

I have little to add to Jill's and Trish's answers on the topics they covered. But don't go away just yet. I do have something I'd like to add to the whole discussion, and that is the way I interpret choice in feminism and how this interpretation is relevant for the question of the missing girls in patriarchal countries.

There is no such thing really as truly "free" choice, if we mean choice unaffected by the constraints that people labor under. We are all limited in our choices by time, money and our own talents and faults, of course. But some of us have more limits on our choices (less money or health or information, more legal constraints or more severe societal ostracization as a consequence of certain choices) than others, and to me the point of feminism was to make sure that these limits are not based on sexist beliefs and practices, that men and women could make choices in as equal circumstances as possible. The pregnant women in India do not make "free" choices to abort pregnancies. Instead, they are affected by the reaction to this pregnancy from their partners and other family members and by the values the wider society places on having daughters. They are also affected by the need to have sons because old-age care for the parents is the sons' duty in these cultures. A woman who has only daughters might face hardship when she is old. And they are affected by the need to provide dowries for their daughters.

All this affects the constraints under which these women decide whether to abort a pregnancy or not, but they also affect the preferences of these women. By "preferences" I mean those things that people think they actually want, those things that the conservatives, especially, often view as autonomous and unchanging parts of the human mind.

I believe that our preferences do change when the culture does, though not completely. It is possible to look for the deeper layers of our wants and desires and to find those fairly constant, but the surface-level expressed desires and wants are partly determined by the environment in which we live.

If you accept this premise then it is important to ask what we mean when we talk about feminism as something that guarantees women free choices over such fields of their lives as reproduction. As I don't believe that choice can ever be free in the sense defined above I view this definition of feminism fairly meaningless. In fact, it is the definition often used by those who actually wish to attack feminism, the idea of feminism as sanctioning anything if a woman has chosen it.

That is a silly definition. A better one is the old-fashioned boring one of defining feminism as the ideology that men and women should have equal opportunities in life and that traditionally male and female areas of life should be equally valued activities. If we apply this definition to the question of sex-specific abortions in India or China an answer to Jeff's questions follows: This practice reflects the favoring of all things male over all things female, whether it is caused by purely societal constraints on the women who decide to abort a fetus because of its sex (in, say, the form of family force used against her) or whether it is a consequence of her having internalized the differential valuing of men over women.

When I say that "this practice reflects the favoring of all things male over all things female" I mean exactly that. It reflects the patriarchal society. It is not the cause of the differential valuing, and banning sex-based abortions would not stop women from being less valued in India or China. But it would make the lives of individual women harder by increasing the number of pregnancies they have to experience before getting the desired number of sons, with all the health risks that pregnancy and giving birth introduce.

What sex-specific abortions have done is to make the patriarchal bias in certain societies more visible. Jeff links to a piece in the U.K. telegraph which talks about a man going around the villages shaming women who have had an ultrasound test, in the hope that this will discourage them from aborting female embryos:

Khrishan Kumar, a civil servant in the northern Indian state of Punjab, stalks pregnant women. If he hears even a hint that someone plans an ultrasound test to discover whether their baby is a girl, he arrives on their doorstep.

Women in Nawan Shahar district, where he is deputy commissioner, fear his telephone calls and surprise visits and dread their names being added to his "watch list".

But his inquisitive methods are helping to stamp out female foeticide, a practice so widespread in India because of the preference for sons rather than daughters that The Lancet recently estimated that 10 million baby girls had been terminated in the past 20 years.

"What kind of society are we building?" said Mr Kumar. "One without any girls? One where parents kill their own child in the womb just because she's a girl?"

The gender ratio of babies has fallen to fewer than 600 girls for every 1,000 boys in the Punjab, a predominantly Sikh region, partly because for the equivalent of £10 even poor farmers can afford a scan to determine the sex of a foetus. Worldwide, 1,050 female babies are born for every 1,000 boys.

As a result, Punjab is suffering from a shortage of brides. Men in their twenties are unable to find wives because more than a quarter of the normal female population is missing.

I bolded the last paragraph. See how quickly the writer of this article got to the patriarchal meat in the whole concern? It is not the absence of girls that is the worry; it is the absence of fecund young women who are needed for... can you guess it? Yes, for the production of children and boys, in particular. Until this changes we are going to have disappearing girls in this world.