Abortion and Sex-selective Abortion

Abortion is a hotly debated issue in the United States. Does a woman have a right to abort a fetus? Do fetuses have rights? When does a fetus become a rightful person? Do fetal rights dominate mothers’ rights, ever? Who gets to decide? And so on. The debate is essentially a moral and an ethical one, in which advocates of women’s rights typically argue that a woman has an unconditional right to decide what happens to and in her body and thus should be able to terminate a fetus if she so desires. Pro-choice groups also point out that the ability to abort unwanted children in fact also benefits children that end up being born because they are more “wanted” and also because parents have more to spend on these children due to the smaller family size when unwanted pregnancies can be safely terminated.

Like most things in life, however, there are plenty of grey areas in the abortion debate. Take, for instance, countries like India and China where parents vastly prefer having sons over daughters.* As people have fewer and fewer children, the pressure to abort girls becomes stronger if son preference does not weaken as fast as the desired number of children. China’s erstwhile One Child Policy quite clearly put this point across (although there is some academic debate about how large the contribution of the One Child Policy to sex ratio imbalance truly was).

The graph below shows the increase in the number of abortions in India during 1972-2012. Abortion was legalized in India in 1971; it is legal if the pregnancy that it terminates endangers the woman’s life, causes grave injury to her physical or mental health, is a result of rape or contraceptive failure (the latter applies only to married women), or is likely to result in the birth of a child suffering from serious physical or mental abnormalities. Consent is not required from the woman’s husband or from other family members; however, a guardian’s consent is required if the woman seeking an abortion is either less than 18 years old or is mentally ill. The law allows an unintended pregnancy to be terminated up to 20 weeks’ gestation; however, if the pregnancy is beyond 12 weeks, approval is required from two medical practitioners.


Total number of abortions in India during 1972-2012. Source: Anukriti et al (2016)

But, starting in mid-1980s, the advent of ultrasound technology and the subsequent liberalization of India’s economy meant that India started importing and subsequently producing a large number of ultrasound scanners, that enabled parents to find out the sex of the unborn child, and abort it if they wanted to. This led to a sharp rise in sex-selective abortions, i.e., abortion of girl fetuses: 480,000 girls were aborted in India each year during 1995-2005, greater than the number of girls born in the United Kingdom each year. This means that the bulk of abortions taking place in India are girl abortions.

How does one think about selective abortion of girls in the context of women’s rights? If we believe that “a woman has an unconditional right to decide what happens to and in her body and thus should be able to terminate a fetus if she so desires,” then is it alright for a woman to selectively abort a girl fetus? Some people might respond by saying that in son-preferring countries, the woman is pressured into having a sex-selective abortion and it is not a real choice that she is exercising. But what if it is in a woman’s best interest to give birth to a son, e.g., because it improves her status within the household, or because she will have a son to live with during old age, or simply because she too dislikes daughters having grown up in a pro-male society, and that is why she herself wants to sex-select? Is it okay then? Of course, these “choices” are being made in a context where women are treated poorly and are not valued as much as men, and the ultimate solution might be to have a gender-equal society, but what happens meanwhile? How do we value women’s rights relative to unborn girls’ rights?**

As I and my co-authors find in a recent paper, it is also the case in India that girls born after it became feasible to abort unwanted girls were breastfed for longer, were more likely to be immunized, and did much better in terms of survival rates than girls that were born when parents could not selectively abort. This effect is partly driven by the fact that now parents don’t need to discriminate after birth and can more effectively discriminate before birth by having a sex-selective abortion. The second reason why we find this effect, similar to the point made in the first paragraph, is that now girls are born in smaller families, so parents have more resources to take care of their daughters.

So is it ok to sex-select because it (a) allows mothers to exercise their choice and (b) also benefits girls that are born?  Well, in our paper we also find that for every girl that survived until age five (indirectly due to ultrasound through the mechanisms I described above), five girls went missing due to sex-selection. So a lot more girls were aborted than the girls who gained after birth because of sex-selection technology.

One could also think of these issues from a larger, more social perspective. What happens in the long-run when girls are aborted at a much higher rate than boys are? The research on this question is not as well-developed, but we have some pointers. The scarcity of women in society can increase the number of unmarried and childless men, who may face destitution in old age since children through marriage are the most important source of support for the elderly in countries like India that lack institutional social security. Rising sex ratios can lead to increased trafficking of women, higher prevalence of sexually-transmitted diseases, and more crime. So, both men and women are likely to bear the adverse effects of sex-selection in the future, and it is incorrect to think of this purely as a women’s issue, albeit an inter-generational one.

A personal aside: Like a lot of feminists, I find myself supporting a woman’s right to abortion in general, but am not on such a firm ground when I think about sex-selective abortions. How does one resolve this dilemma? Any thoughts?


*To be precise, it is not always the case that parents want a boy over a girl; it’s more often that families want at least one or two sons. For example, in the north Indian state of Haryana,  Jayachandran (2016) finds that although the vast majority of families want to have a son if they can only have one child, at a family size of two they prefer having one daughter and one son over having two sons.

**Note the similarities with the climate change debate.