Conservative commentators have found a handy silver lining to disquieting information about sex-selective abortion: It allows them, conveniently, to declare that all abortion should be banned, ever. Forgive us if we're less than credulous about their universal commitment to gender equality.
The discussion has been renewed because of a highly-praised book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Girls And The Consequences Of A World Full Of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl. According to reviewers (our copy is on the way) Hvistendahl relies on first-hand reporting to tell the history and present of women, many in Asia, aborting female fetuses. What she doesn't do is recommend that abortion be banned.
Enter a bunch of (male) commentators to do it for her and chide her for not being up to the task of moral clarity.
"There are only two alternatives," declares The Wall Street Journal's reviewer, Jonathan V. Last. "Restrict abortion or accept the slaughter of millions of baby girls and the calamities that are likely to come with it."
And Ross Douthat in his New York Times column implicitly accuses Mara Hvistendahl of moral cowardice: "The anti-abortion side has it easier," he closes. "We can say outright what's implied on every page of 'Unnatural Selection,' even if the author can't quite bring herself around. The tragedy of the world's 160 million missing girls isn't that they're 'missing.' The tragedy is that they're dead."
In other words, these men want to exchange a disturbing practice that is the product of inequality with something guaranteed to create more inequality — namely, denying women the right to decide when to have children, or forcing women to give birth. That does sound like a very simple choice.
Douthat does throw the feminists a bone ("patriarchy"!), just before suggesting that their influence has harmed women:
Patriarchy is certainly part of the story, but as Hvistendahl points out, the reality is more complicated 0- and more depressing. Thus far, female empowerment often seems to have led to more sex selection, not less. In many communities, she writes, "women use their increased autonomy to select for sons," because male offspring bring higher social status.
Actually, that sounds like an example that has everything to do with patriarchy and incomplete "female empowerment." Women can often use "autonomy" to make choices that favor men or create an overall societal harm — see, for example, female genital mutilation or female anti-choice Republicans.
Last is disgusted that Hvistendahl exhibits what he calls an "unbecoming political provincialism," which is apparently synonymous with being pro-choice. (Also, tangentially, with being critical of racism. Why does Last sniff, "Through most of human history distinct racial and ethnic groups have only reluctantly intermarried; that she attributes this reluctance to a specific breed of 'racism' says less about the American past than about her own biases" if not to carry a torch for separate-but-equal bigotry?)
This is, apparently, not a moment to think about why China and India's bans on sex-selective abortion are ineffective, or about creating a social framework where having a girl isn't debilitating to a family's resources (meanwhile, Chinese men are saving up to bid on brides, whose dowry were what was feared in the first place). Says Last,
It is telling that Ms. Hvistendahl identifies a ban on abortion—and not the killing of tens of millions of unborn girls—as the "worst nightmare" of feminism. Even though 163 million girls have been denied life solely because of their gender, she can't help seeing the problem through the lens of an American political issue.
It is telling that this man can only see being pro-choice as an "American political issue," but the problem goes deeper than that. As compelling a figure as 163 million girls is, we are talking about 163 million fetuses, some of which wouldn't have even been conceived had couples not been repeatedly trying for a boy — the possibility of a girl, as opposed to a real and non-abstract discussion of a world that exists where men outnumber women and unfavorable social consequences result.
Last cites South Korea's high male-female ratio, particularly in second, third, and fourth births, indicating that parents who left it to fate but didn't have a boy were opting for sex-selective abortion on later tries. Meanwhile, abortion is illegal in South Korea, though illegal abortions are seldom prosecuted. (Of a proposed crackdown on illegal abortions, the head of an ob-gyn association in Korea told The Times, "More women will now go abroad for abortion. Illegal abortions will go deeper underground, causing more medical accidents. There will be more abandoned infants." Female infants, we would guess.)
As Matt Yglesias points out, this is less about abortion than about sex selection. Funny that none of these guys want to talk about that.