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Author of Book on Sex Selection Weighs in on PRENDA's Defeat

Posted: Jun 07, 2012


Editor's note: Mara Hvistendahl is a journalist and award-winning author of the book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. She is currently a China-based correspondent for Science magazine.
  In the following interview, Hvistendahl speaks with NAM health editor Viji Sundaram, about sex selection and the implications of the recent defeat of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA).

NAM: Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives defeated the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA), which would have banned sex-selective abortions. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

I am opposed to PRENDA, which includes language designed to set a precedent for further restrictions on abortion. I am not categorically opposed to bans on sex-selective abortion, however. Such bans have played an important role in fighting sex selection in South Korea, China and India.

NAM: What’s different about the bans in Asia?

The bans in place in Asia are not simply abortion bans. They also ban sex selection during [in vitro fertilization] and advertising of sex selection services, and they target sex determination [finding out the sex of the unborn baby from the doctor], as well as sex selective abortion. That’s an important distinction.

NAM: Has the U.S. considered banning sex determination, so doctors would not be able to tell parents the sex of their unborn baby?

I have not heard any supporters of PRENDA talk about banning sex determination. In fact, when [Canadian neurologist] Rajendra Kale suggested in the Canadian Medical Association Journal earlier this year that Canadian doctors consider withholding [from the parents] the unborn baby’s sex until 30 weeks, an uproar ensued. I suspect Americans would have a similar response. Sex determination would actually be a far easier thing to target than sex-selective abortion, and targeting it would not impinge on women’s reproductive rights. But I don’t think many Americans are prepared to take that step.

The lead sponsor of the national PRENDA bill, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, called sex-selective abortions the “ultimate violence against women.” Women’s right groups, on the other hand, assert that PRENDA would have limited women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. They charged that the bill would cause racial discrimination against minorities, especially women from Asia.

I feel the same way about Trent Franks’ language that I do about the term, “gendercide”: It’s distracting and histrionic. Terms that evoke killing and violence don’t help one bit. But there is no doubt that sex selection, on the scale on which it occurs around the globe, is gender discrimination. Women’s right groups need to take a more sophisticated stance on the issue that includes addressing the technology behind sex selection. The latest sex determination method to be developed -- noninvasive prenatal diagnosis -- can be performed with a simple blood test and allows couples to learn the sex of a fetus as early as seven weeks of pregnancy.

NAM: Your research took you to such far off places as China, India, Korea, Azerbaijan and Armenia – countries where millions of baby girls go missing. In some of those countries, there is a ban on doctors revealing the sex of the unborn baby. But that law is hardly enforced.

The fact that the law isn’t enforced in many countries does not mean it shouldn’t exist—or that is isn’t enforceable. In fact, evidence from South Korea in the 1990s suggests that when the ban on sex determination and sex selection was enforced there, the sex ratio at birth became less skewed. Ultimately, the law should set a standard for society.

NAM: If you are opposed to sex-selective abortions, what is the better alternative for women who are abused by their families for not producing boys?

Stories of abuse are tragic and undoubtedly real. But they do not account for the bulk of sex selection cases.

We also have to confront the fact that many, many women in the developing world — and a smaller number in the United States — are choosing to have sex-selective abortions. From Armenia to India, sex selection is something that statistically happens among the wealthy, educated, and middle-class. It does not start with poor, disenfranchised communities, though it may eventually reach such places. This is a problem perpetuated by women as much as men. That fact may make solving the problem more complicated, but it does not justify inaction.







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