The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer attacks Ross Douthat’s review of Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection. In the course of his attack, Serwer claims,
* If “women’s empowerment” lead to sex-selective abortion, that would offer a powerful argument against abortion since everyone agrees sex-selective abortion is bad. The problem is that even abortion rights supporters think sex-selective abortion is bad . . .
* Perhaps it seems obvious, but that kind of blatant economic incentive against having female children doesn’t exist in the United States.
* . . . female children being aborted because they’re by definition a financial liability actually suggests that “patriarchy” is a pretty huge part of the story. Rather than “female empowerment” being the issue, the problem is that women are literally valued less than men, a problem denying women the right to decide when to carry children to term wouldn’t actually solve.
Serwer should read Hvistendahl’s book more carefully. If he did, he’d see that “everyone” does not think that sex selective abortion is bad. But more importantly, he’d see that even in America, where girls are not an out-sized financial drain on families, the sex ratios at birth are skewed for some ethnicities–and become more skewed at higher-order births.
Finally, Sewer seems to have misunderstood the origins of sex-selective abortion: It begins not with lower- and middle-class families, who need to worry about girls being a financial drain, but rather with wealthy elites, for whom finances are a much lower-order concern. The behavior then filters down the socio-economic ladder to the middle and lower classes, which do have to worry about money. Hvistendahl makes this all quite clear in her reporting.
Also, the problem isn’t just that girls have a “lower” value to these poorer families. As Hvistendahl shows, the sex imbalance also causes havoc once the shortage of girls gives young women a higher value. When the “value” of young women escalates, it causes all sorts of other problems, including forced marriages, mail-order-weddings, widespread sexual slavery and prostitution, and the danger of creating a permanent underclass of women. In other words, the women’s enhanced value becomes a danger to her, not an asset.
But maybe none of this matters to abortion supporters, for whom the only imperative is the unfettered abortion right.
Let’s pretend for a moment that the only source of the problem really is patriarchy. Well, then, you have two choices: Do you confront the slaughter of millions of girls by “fighting” patriarchical culture in some nebulous way that may, or may not, after several decades, pay off? Or do you outlaw abortion, enforce the ban pretty rigorously (by sending doctors who perform them to jail) and understand that while there will still be illegal abortions which slip through the cracks, girl babies won’t be targeted as widely and that the vast majority of those who would have been killed in the gendercide will be allowed life?
I think I can guess where Serwer would come down. Which is fine. But you must then realize that all the posturing about how terrible it is that girls keep getting aborted is really just a second-order concern. Again, that’s fine. But if that’s what you believe, you should have the courage to say it out loud.
The best email I got after I reviewed Hvistendahl’s book was from someone who quipped that we’ll start restricting abortion in America the day after someone develops and in utero test for “the gay gene.” Because if it turned out that certain classes of women were aborting babies exclusively because of their homosexuality, then the left would finally turn on abortion.
And maybe they would. But maybe not.
P.S.: There’s also this. I actually wonder how closely Serwer read Hvistendahl’s book.
P.P.S.: In case my first point isn’t clear, I’d point readers to page 243 of Unnatural Selection, where Hvistendahl talks with an abortion-rights advocate who tried to put on a conference to talk about sex-selective abortion. She writes:
“People had really mixed feelings about sex selection,” she recalls. Many of the activists at the session didn’t believe it was unequivocally wrong. Some believed sex selection was wrong only when it discriminated against girls; selecting for girls was another matter.
There’s more where that came from. Like this line from a paper in Reproductive Health Matters (on page 27):
“For women attempting to have a son and experiencing pressure to fulfill their ‘womanly duty’ by having a male child, sex-selective abortion can be extremely empowering.”
Etc. But you really should read the book. It’s great.
Final Update: Adam Serwer has responded! Let me help him out: My point was not that I “want ‘womens’ empowerment’” to be responsible for sex-selective abortion. In fact, I don’t think I mention “women’s empowerment” in either my blog post or my review. I’m pretty convinced by Hvistendahl’s work that the witches brew is enormously complicated and that there’s enough blame to go around for everyone: feminists, Western Malthusians, patriarchical cultures, the economics of development, meddling non-profits and NGOs, science, etc.
The argument I was making–and his non-response makes even clearer–is much less grand: I was merely pointing out that Serwer’s errors suggested that maybe he didn’t read Hvistendahl’s book very carefully. But maybe I’m wrong!