Time to end silence about sex-selective abortion in Canada

In 2006, Surrey, B.C., with a large South Asian population, had a gap of 109 boys for every 100 girls

March 14, 2012

CALGARY, AB, Mar. 14, 2012, Troy Media/ – According to recent news reports, the practice of sex-selective abortion, widespread in cultures where sons are preferred over daughters, may be creeping into Canada.

Why, then, don’t we hear more questions being asked about our own boy-to-girl baby ratio and the issue of sex-selective abortion?

Natural versus unnatural gender ratios

When a woman chooses to terminate her pregnancy solely because the fetus is female – a common practice in India and China – her abortion is said to be ‘sex-selective.’ Gender ratio can also be affected by infanticide and sex-selective fertility treatments.

The top end of the normal boy-girl ratio is 105 boys to every 100 girls, but in 2009 Canada had 105.4 male births to every 100 females. That may look like a small difference, but consider this: Surrey, B.C., with a large South Asian population, had a gap of 109 boys for every 100 girls in 2006.

Polls indicate that Canadians overall prefer sons and daughters in roughly equal numbers. Demographic data showing more boys than girls born is more disturbing in this context.

But even if the gender imbalance caused by sex-selective abortion in Canada is not at the scale of, for example, India, Dr. Rajendra Kale with the Canadian Medical Association says, ‘Small numbers cannot be ignored when the issue is about discrimination against women in its most extreme form. This evil devalues women.’

Canadian women – guaranteed access to safe, legal abortion, although access is still limited in some communities – no longer have to choose between a back-alley, often dangerous, abortion or bearing a child they do not want.

Given that over 90 per cent of Canadians support some form of abortion access, our public policy problem isn’t the availability of abortion per se, but sex selection. How then do we cope with this issue?

Differential treatment according to cultural background? As only some sub-cultures exhibit a strong social preference for boys, one possibility would be to require women of, say, Filipino or Indian descent to provide an ‘acceptable’ reason for seeking an abortion. Canada, however, is devoted to treating people as individuals, not as merely members of a group with uniform traditions. Besides, all a woman asked for a reason has to do is lie. This kind of discrimination is not the solution.

Delay release of information on gender? Although women in Canada are legally entitled to seek an abortion at any point for any reason, in practice abortions in the late stages of pregnancy almost never happen, as physicians refuse to perform them. A recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal advocates release of fetal gender information at 30 weeks gestation or later, similar to a proposal a year earlier in an obstetrics journal.

This proposal might look promising to curb sex-selective abortion, but complications immediately arise. For one thing, a woman has a legal right in Canada to her personal health information. This may imply an immediate right to know the sex of the fetus, a point raised by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.

For another, requiring certain reasons for an abortion may well violate women’s right to privacy, which the Supreme Court of Canada noted in its 1988 decision which declared unconstitutional the law that had severely restricted access to the procedure.

Besides, the proposal to withhold gender information for a time ignores the reality of at-home testing using mail order kits. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in August 2011 that non-invasive prenatal sex tests now can be performed reliably as early as seven weeks gestation.

Is education the answer? The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada states that ‘it is important to remember that we cannot restrict women’s right to abortion just because some women might make decisions we disagree with . . . . The answer lies in education and raising the status of girls and women over the long-term, not in restricting abortion.’

This approach could be successful; Korean women’s rights groups succeeded in reversing the trend of aborting girls through a two decade public education campaign.

Wait 20 years for positive results?

We must ask, however, if long-term education campaigns are the best course of action in Canada. Is it ethically acceptable to wait 20 years for public awareness efforts to stem the loss of our girl babies?

Isn’t it time to talk about the social consequences of sex-selective abortion and a skewed gender ratio?

Heather MacIntosh is program director, democratic development and human rights, with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.

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