Is Sex-selective Abortion Worse than Sex-selective Coitus?

Mark Mercer argues for the immorality of sex selection, even if doing so did not involve abortion


That the fetus she is carrying is female is for one or another Canadian woman a sufficient reason to have an abortion. 

This fact troubles Canadians, if recent polls are to be trusted.  According to Environics, 92% of us oppose sex-selective abortion; Angus Reid says that 66% want laws against the practice. Unfortunately, the figures themselves give us no clue as to which part of the practice is doing the troubling.  Is it sex selection or abortion?

Let’s suppose couples can employ a reliable technique to ensure that the zygote is male.  Time of day, temperature of the room, number of ejaculations in a twelve-hour period, whatever—let’s suppose that some technique reliably results in a male rather than a female if coitus results in pregnancy at all.  (Let’s not suppose the technique involves a pill or an intra-penile device; artificial methods might introduce an irrelevant consideration.)  Now let us conduct a new poll.  Would we discover that 92% of Canadians oppose sex-selective coitus?  Would any at all think it should be illegal?

455px-Jacob_Willemsz__Delff_(I)_001I doubt the percentages would stay the same.  I suspect that the figure of 92% would fall, and fall dramatically.  If I am right, then it’s the abortion part that accounts for Canadians’ opposition, not the sex selection part.  If it were just the sex selection, then any way of ensuring a male rather than a female baby would trouble us as much as sex-selective abortion does.

For my part, I would rather that in this new poll the figure of 92% did not fall.  That is because the practice of sex selection reveals pinched and narrow attitudes towards having daughters (or sons).  Abortion itself, on the other hand, is of no interest ethically.

The argument that, ethically speaking, abortion is of no interest begins with the observation that human fetuses, though human beings, are no more richly aware or self-aware than are snails, worms, or salmon, at least for the first couple trimesters.  (In their final trimester, they compare poorly with typical adult pigs or dogs.)  That they lack a rich awareness of both their environment and themselves implies that they lack interests.  Lacking interests, they thereby lack the interests that certain forms of treatment could wrongfully frustrate.  Thus, if a snail may be killed (painlessly) for just about any reason a person could have, then so, too, may a human fetus.

If this is right, sex-selective abortion cannot be counted wrongfully discriminatory.  Discrimination against girls and women is, of course, wrongful, because it contravenes the principle of equal consideration of interests: that for each of us, what we want and like and aspire to counts the same as what anyone else does.  Human fetuses, though, since they lack interests, cannot be treated unfairly with regard to their interests.  For that reason, discriminating against female fetuses cannot be unfair to those fetuses.  From an ethical point of view, killing a fetus just because it is not male is not at all like saying “no” to a girl just because she isn’t a boy.

Nonetheless, sex-selective abortion expresses a preference for sons over daughters, and that’s a preference of which we should be happy to disapprove.  Indeed, the existence of sex-selective abortion means that some women must have a very strong aversion to having a daughter (or son), given that they want a baby but yet are willing to undergo a surgical procedure—never a trivial matter—so as not to have a baby girl (or boy).

Why would someone prefer, strongly prefer, to have a son rather than a daughter?  A detailed answer to this question has to be left to the anthropologists or sociologists. Speaking generally, though, perhaps it is based on the belief that daughters often or always live lives less rich and full than sons do.  Or, perhaps, it is based on a preference for the sorts of things sons do over those that daughters do.  Probably bound up with these beliefs and further preferences are thoughts about the ways in which parents interact with their children, and about the pride they can take in their offspring.

Criticizing false beliefs is a relatively simple matter of compiling and organizing contrary evidence.  Those who believe that girls lack traits of character boys possess or have fewer opportunities than boys do to create rich lives can be shown girls as feisty and spirited as any boy and women as accomplished and successful as any men.

To criticise a preference, on the other hand, is to show that it sits poorly with other of one’s preferences or prevents one from realizing important goals.  Boys tend more than girls to play competitive power sports (let’s say), and thereby a son is more likely to excel at such sports than a daughter is; and I want to be the father of a child who excels in competitive power sports.  And yet (you tell me), girls tend to be more empathetic than boys (let’s say), or to master more easily second and third languages, and thereby to excel at helping or communicating.  Since these are also things that matter to me (you continue), my preference for a son is without grounds, for a daughter could just as well fulfil my aspirations as a parent.

That, at any rate, is the outline of a response to a person seeking to be a parent who prefers to have a son.  Whatever she wants from a son is just as well available from a daughter—or, at least, that is the type of world we should be working to create.


Mark Mercer, Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University.


  1. Not in my country · · Reply

    While I can’t condone sex-selective abortion on moral grounds period, I’d be a lot more open to legal restrictions if arguments for such a ban weren’t always couched in the “because it hurts women” rhetoric. I do not live in India. I do not live in China. I live in a western country where most sex-selection is in favor of daughters at the expense of their sons. Yet no one cares. Apparently it’s totally cool with bioethicists like this as long as it’s baby boys you’re aborting.

    I simply don’t buy that people like this *actually* care about the effects of sex-imbalance in a large society, or about which reasons are valid for wanting an abortion. The only care about *certain* children, and won’t support people like that.

  2. Paul Curry · · Reply

    I don’t know. This might seem to work if parents’ decisions were based on equality in some metaphysical sense (or what have you) but otherwise the argument seems to serve the proponent of sex-selective abortion. ‘My preference’ is for a child that plays power sports and I could care less about second and third languages. I might even think learning languages is great, but maybe a person with such interests is unlikely to thrive in my family environment etc.
    Not many pro-choice advocates say abortion is of no moment, do they?
    And do newborns have many interests? And does our right to life start small and peak when we have the maximum number of interests and thereafter decline? Or is there some threshold that happily aligns with birth?

  3. Yeah? Tell that to the woman who heard the heartbeat of her non-selected zygote for the first time!

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