More Unnatural Selection-Updated-Again

June 28, 2011

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.

And then:

* . . . 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!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Rock Throwing Peasant June 28, 2011 at 3:24 pm

And what happens when the Left pushes to ban testing for “the gay gene?” Would the Right stand in the way, knowing it’s used to abort more babies?

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JJV June 28, 2011 at 5:03 pm

The day they can test for the “gay gene” only homosexuals and orthodox religious would have gay kids. An unlikely alliance would form!

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Mont D. Law June 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

[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.]

This is because women have no power in these societies. Her enhanced value doesn’t accrue to her, she does not control it. In a society where women were treated as human beings this value would accrue to her.

[Do you stop sex-selective abortion and prevent 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?]

So to solve a problem caused by the inhuman treatment of women your solution is to punish these women? How is that going to work exactly? The society @ large could care less what happens to these babies. All you will end up doing is perpetuating the system that is causing the problem – women have no value.

But the biggest argument against your position is the that the western world where women’s rights are most respected and where abortion & birth control are most available – is the place where fewest abortions take place for reasons of sex selection. In fact the vast majority of abortions in the west are done before the sex of the baby is known.

[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.]

This is silly. For me access to abortion is not about abortion at all – it is about a women’s right to control her body. As long as a fetus needs a women’s body to gestate women should have the right abort for any reason or no reason.

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ME June 29, 2011 at 11:43 pm

“This is because women have no power in these societies.”

…because sexual slavery and prostitution aren’t problems in the West, right?

“So to solve a problem caused by the inhuman treatment of women your solution is to punish these women?”

Heaven help us that we live in a society where some people see pregancy and childbirth as “punishment.” What happened to “responsibility” as in the 90+% of cases where a child was the product of a consensual sexual relationship – and note, I mean responsibility for both parents. Truth is that far more women get used by guys all too happy to see that abortion. But apparently mont sees that as empowerment. Sad.

“This is silly. For me access to abortion is not about abortion at all – it is about a women’s right to control her body. ”

What’s silly is the failure to recognize that controlling one’s body starts not with the choices one makes after preganancy but before. After pregnancy, another human life is involved, one that did not force itself into the world but (with the exception of rape/incest abortions) was brought into it with the willing action of the parents.

It’s not loss of control that mont and othe pro-choice advocates fear, it’s responsibility for their actions.

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Doofus June 28, 2011 at 9:14 pm

@ mont

“This is because women have no power in these societies. Her enhanced value doesn’t accrue to her, she does not control it. In a society where women were treated as human beings this value would accrue to her. . . or me access to abortion is not about abortion at all – it is about a women’s right to control her body.”

So, in a society where women have no power, it is morally wrong to allow abortion because it is not about her right to control her body at all. Instead, it is men imposing their choice upon her body.

Glad to know you oppose abortion rights for over 1/5 of the world’s women! Thanks for joining the fight!

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Simmel72 June 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Serwer was addressing Douthat on the issue of women’s empowerment, not you.

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Jonathan V. Last June 28, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Serwer: “The reason why Last wants “women’s empowerment” to be the problem is because his solution . . .”

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SkinsFanPG June 29, 2011 at 9:14 am

Mont:

What about when a fetus does not require a woman’s body to gestate? As science makes it easier and easier to deliver babies earlier, this argument loses value. It all goes back to the “I should have a right to do what I want with my body” which is total nonsense.
Here’s why the argument doesn’t work:
- People do not have the right to do as they wish with their bodies. For example, I do not have the right to use my body to beat another man to death.
- I know what you’ll say: “But that is because you’re harming another person”
- EXACTLY!!!! I cannot use my body to harm another person. Which is exactly the point. Abortion harms another person.
-The pro-abortion/choice argument always claims to be about privacy and doing what you want with your body. But this is nonsense. It has nothing to do with those things. It has to do with what constitutes a “person” worthy of the same protections everyone else enjoys. For those who favor choice/abortion, personhood begins when the baby is delivered.
- This is such a dangerous position since defining personhood so loosely has all sorts of very nasty ramifications.

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Drew June 29, 2011 at 11:37 am

I would think that the fact that a preference for boys persists in ethnic minorities who still have ties to their culture would strengthen, not weaken, Serwer’s point, regardless of whether or not he was aware or correct about that detail.

Economic realities can often become cultural norms that persist even when those economic realities change.

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Drinking Jim Crow June 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm

SkinsFanPG June 29, 2011 at 9:14 am

Mont:

What about when a fetus does not require a woman’s body to gestate? As science makes it easier and easier to deliver babies earlier, this argument loses value. It all goes back to the “I should have a right to do what I want with my body” which is total nonsense.

How about we deal in reality rather than hypotheticals? The argument of viability only “loses value” with regard to the 2nd trimester (i.e., weeks 13-27), because more towards the end of the 2nd trimester is where technology currently has a chance to help a fetus survive outside of the womb. The notion that technology will ever being able to keep a fetus in the first trimester alive outside the womb is science fiction currently, so it certainly isn’t cogent to offer in support of curtailing the constitutional rights of Americans presently. However, should we reach the point that a woman’s womb is unnecessary anymore, you’re point would be relevant. Until then, it stands as Exhibit A that you’re the one spouting “total nonsense” grounded in emotion rather than science or logic.

Here’s why the argument doesn’t work:
– People do not have the right to do as they wish with their bodies. For example, I do not have the right to use my body to beat another man to death.

This is not an adequate analogy. This isn’t even comparing apples to oranges. If you’re comparing a human being’s choice to beat another human being with the choice of a human being to terminate a non-viable fetus, you’re comparing apples to orangutans.

First, the beating victim operates completely independent of the victimizer. Second, the beating victim is a human being “born alive” (unless he or she is a zombie, but I digress), so he or she is granted the full panoply of due process rights under the law. There is no precedent in our law that a fetus in the first two trimesters is a human being because it has yet to reach the point of viability (hence, Roe v. Wade and it’s progeny). This is based in centuries of legal tradition which has only attributed legal protection to a fetus at the point of viability. This is ancient law. Google “quickening”. Your analogy is lazy and incoherent.

– I know what you’ll say: “But that is because you’re harming another person”
– EXACTLY!!!! I cannot use my body to harm another person. Which is exactly the point. Abortion harms another person.

No, it doesn’t, so long as it occurs prior to fetal viability. See above (or just research any of the constitutional jurisprudence on abortion for 5 minutes).

-The pro-abortion/choice argument always claims to be about privacy and doing what you want with your body. But this is nonsense. It has nothing to do with those things. It has to do with what constitutes a “person” worthy of the same protections everyone else enjoys. For those who favor choice/abortion, personhood begins when the baby is delivered.
– This is such a dangerous position since defining personhood so loosely has all sorts of very nasty ramifications.

Yes, you’re right. The issue does come down to the legal definition of personhood (or when a human being attains all the rights of due process legal protections).

However, you’re wrong in believing this has nothing to do with the constitutional right to privacy. Again, research the issue. Read Griswald v. Connecticut , which began the journey to Roe v. Wade by saying that the government has no business interfering with the intimate reproductive decisions of married couples (specifically, the case barred states from making it illegal for pharmacists to sell contraceptives to married persons). No matter you’re personal philosophical issues with abortion, it is a private reproductive issue that should be decided by the woman, her medical advisors, and anyone else she chooses to consult before ultimately making her decision, so long as it’s within the first 2 trimesters of the pregnancy. Anti-choicers want the government to interfere with that private medical decision, which is a clear invasion of the woman’s right to privacy under long-established constitutional precedent.

You’re also wrong in categorizing those who support a woman’s right to an abortion as believing a fetus is not a person until born alive. That statement is completely at odds with Roe v. Wade , which simply held that a woman has the constitutional right to make the private decision to abort a fetus prior to the point of viability. This was interpreted to mean that the State’s indisputable interest in protecting and promoting the lives of its citizens can only supersede the privacy interests of a pregnant woman after the conclusion of the 2nd trimester (at the rough point of “viability”). Further interpretation has expanded the State’s abilities to curtail abortion (See Casey v. Planned Parenthood , for instance), but this basic perspective remains in control.

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ME June 29, 2011 at 11:30 pm

DJC – Where to begin?!

“The argument of viability only ‘loses value’ …”

It helps if you know what the argument actually is. SkinsFanPG was focusing on the cognitive dissonance between the excuse of viability (a notion little regarded until the SC made it the focus of Roe vs. Wade) and the insistence that abortion be available at any (or almost) time. You’re argument simply reinforces that point. Even if you believe viability to be a bright line (as if it could be), clearly most pro-choice advocates do not.

“Second, the beating victim is a human being ‘born alive’ ”

What about the fact that the law covers beatings that result in the death of unborn children, as a separate or additional crime? Or the beating of animals, who do not have the same rights as humans?

“No, it doesn’t, so long as it occurs prior to fetal viability. ”

Again, this is the lame standard primarily foisted on jurisprudence by a SC casting about for ways to justify the expansion of a “privacy” right to something unrecognized by any federal American court before. Appealing to a decision that many people argue is fundamentally wrong on the issue of life and “personhood” is just an empty appeal to authority.

Another reason viability is a horrible standard is because there are plenty of people outside the womb who are not viable. Patients on life-support, etc. Viability isn’t a standard at all. The claim of viability is the notion that an unborn child has to be able to support itself apart from its mother. It’s a special claim to invent a special right.

“Read Griswald v. Connecticut …”

Griswold and Roe are apples and oranges. There’s a massive difference between contraception, which is designed to prevent conception (arguments about IUD’s aside) and abortion, which destroys the product of contraception.

Independent spermatozoa and ova are not unique individual human lives. A fetus is. There is NO real constitutional precedent for what the SC did in Roe vs. Wade.

“No matter you’re personal philosophical issues with abortion, it is a private reproductive issue that should be decided by the woman, her medical advisors…”

This is just more begging the question with viability. If the issue is one of a woman’s right over her body, why should viability matter (particularly in the cases of women who feely entered into the sexual relationship that produced the child – a relationship with obvious potential consequences)? And why should viability matter if the definition for “personhood” is so nebulous in the first place to include it as a critical element?

Viability is just an artificial construct that enabled the SC (and many abortion supporters since then) to avoid coming to grips with the real philosophical and moral implications of deliberately killing human life in the womb.

Finally, let’s add the obvious, since it seems to be needed here: When an abortion takes place, it does so AFTER reproduction has already occurred. Reproductive freedom (if there is such a constitutional right) is what people engage in before conception.

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Drinking Jim Crow June 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I understood SkinsFanPG’s argument just fine (it was simplistic after all). My point (which you really didn’t bother to engage honestly) was that his/her premise was faulty, therefore his concluding assertions were unreliable.

I’ll repeat: neither Roe v. Wade or it’s progeny have insisted that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion “at any (or almost) [sic] time.” If you actually read the constitutional law, rather than listening to the voices in your own head, you’d realise that very simple, concise point. Since you clearly haven’t even a passing familiarity with the law, I’ll sum it up for you again: Roe , etc. strike a balance between the individual right to privacy regarding reproductive decisions guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution since at least Griswold was decided in 1965 and the inherent duty of the State to promote and protect the lives of its citizenry, by barring the State from interfering with a woman’s decision to abort the fetus inside her body until that fetus is viable. And if you think the SCOTUS made the notion of fetal viability from whole cloth, you clearly haven’t heard of the obscure legal scholar William Blackstone:

“Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the antient law homicide or manslaughter. But at present it is not looked upon in quite so atrocious a light, though it remains a very heinous misdemesnor.”

[http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendIXs1.html]

As to the rest of your assertions: again, you have every right to rely on your own personal philosophical and moral viewpoints in objecting to choosing to abort a non-viable fetus. But holding those viewpoints does not give you the right to dash aside all legal and customary precedent and decide for others who don’t share your views that they must carry an unwanted pregnancy to term against their will when the fetus is not yet viable.

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SkinsFanPG June 29, 2011 at 3:57 pm

DJC:
No offense, but you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. As recently as 2003 The Guttmacher Institute estimated that there were roughly 1000 late term abortions in the US per year. Whatever the intentions of Griswold, Roe, and Casey, the interpretations have allowed for late term abortions under pretty much any circumstance (the mental health of the mother can be used to justify any abortion and any stage). All attempts to curtail these late term abortions have been met with complete and total opposition from the pro-choice community unless mental health clauses were included (which are used to justify any abortion at any stage). The notion that there are pro-choicers out there that accept the basic notion of personhood prior to delivery is nonsense. If that were the case late-second and third term abortions would be illegal. They are not.

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Drinking Jim Crow June 30, 2011 at 12:21 pm

“No offense” SkinsFanPG, but you’re introducing a strawman here.

First you mis-state the law, when you get called on it, you now resort to relying on rare extremes in a desperate clutch at credibility. Yes, late-term abortions are performed. They are rare (only 1% of all abortions are performed after 21 weeks – http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html) They are performed to save the live of the mother or when her health is severely threatened by continuing with the pregnancy. I don’t know what you’re referring to when you cite “mental health clauses” with regard to late-term abortions.

Since you are so willing to levy extreme examples to win some illusory point, let me put you on the spot: are you so fanatical in your hatred of abortion as a medical procedure, that it’s preferable that a woman be forced by law to die rather than ever be allowed to terminate a pregnancy?

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Leading Quality Expert June 29, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Standard of viability you say?hmmmm…My 15 year old fetal growth is still not viable outside the womb without constant guidance, protection, and technological care-taking.
I ‘ve always wondered how can anyone really be thought to “choose” something (especially when selecting for type) without due deliberation, all the facts, and some distance from the immediacy of the situation, which only time (140 months or so) can provide. Thanks.
Get me the hoover, blood of my blood.

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Fake Herzog June 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm

This is my favorite line from DJC:

“Anti-choicers want the government to interfere with that private medical decision, which is a clear invasion of the woman’s right to privacy under long-established constitutional precedent. ”

I laughed out loud when I read “long-established constitutional precedent.” Here’s a hint for you DJC…Griswald v. Connecticut isn’t that long ago and its majority decision is what is known in technical legal terms as “crap”.

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Drinking Jim Crow June 30, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Decided on June 7, 1965, Griswold will be 50 years old in three and a half years. Furthermore, based on a Lexis-Nexus search, it has been cited and developed as controlling precedent well over 2500 times since it was decided.

Here’s a hint for you Fake: to most folks, half a century is pretty “long ago”; and calling a landmark Supreme Court decision that paved the way for freedom from government interference in our most intimate private decisions “crap” says a lot more about you than you probably care to believe.

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Fake Herzog July 1, 2011 at 11:37 am

DJC,

Many “landmark Supreme Court” decisions that paved the way for “for freedom from government interference in our most intimate private decisions” are indeed crap, meanign they are built on shoddy Constitutional reasoning. Their results might make for good law in some cases, but that doesn’t mean the decision makes one whit of sense. There is just no such thing as a penumbra of the Bill of Rights, no matter how much Justice Douglas wanted them to be there.

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Glenn June 29, 2011 at 6:19 pm

It seems that people first need to read the book. Second, Hvistendahl is not making the case of Abortion/no Abortion. She is a reporter and is simply demonstrating the harmful impact selecting boys over girls and how it has resulted in a missing 160 Million girls. It would sure be nice if the worn out battles of abortion on both sides would cease missing the true point of Mara’s book. Its about bio-ethics folks and does our current level of understanding fall short of a clear vision of the results.

How about a truce on abortion, you folks can fight that battle at another time, its exhausting….

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Fake Herzog July 1, 2011 at 11:29 am

Glenn,

You are not quite right — Mara should be commended for writing the book and thinking about this issue, but she herself has made the missing girls partially about abortion:

http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/07/01/abortion-mara-hvistendahl-and-the-whitman-inconsistency-fallacy/

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