Why Are Sex-Selective Abortions Morally Problematic?

Currently, abortion is generally legal in the United States through all nine months of pregnancy (except in about 11 states) for generally any reason. Our government recently decided to vote on whether or not to ban sex-selection abortions, but ultimately decided not to ban them.

At first blush, this seems pretty ridiculous to me. However, upon closer examination of the pro-choice position, can you really blame them? When the Roe v. Wade decision was passed, the Supreme Court decided that no one can tell when human life begins (despite blatant scientific evidence to the contrary), then took it upon themselves to declare that life begins at birth and made abortions legal through all nine months of pregnancy.

Now, if the unborn are mere “clumps of cells” or “tissue,” and are not “humans” as we are, then why is sex-selection abortion wrong? If a couple is trying to conceive, is the father wrong for hoping he gets a son? As long as he doesn’t mistreat or abuse his child if she turns out to be a girl, of course it’s not wrong. In fact, if the unborn are not part of the moral community then, as SPL member LN once argued, having a sex-selection abortion is the moral equivalent of a man getting a vasectomy because he may produce female children in the future.

Polling data actually suggests that the majority of Americans (in fact, 86%) believe that sex-selection abortions are not only immoral, but should be illegal. So let’s take this a step further by using a technique that Scott Klusendorf and Greg Koukl have dubbed Trot Out the Toddler. Say a woman gives birth to a girl and when the girl is two, the father decides he doesn’t want her and wants to try again (he really wants a boy). Would he be morally justified in taking the child’s life because she’s female? Of course not! So why do we feel so strongly that sex-selection abortions are horrible? Could it be because the unborn that we are aborting is a human? Why would sex-selection abortions be a human rights violation based on gender, if abortion itself isn’t a human rights violation based on their humanity?

Steve Wagner, in his book Common Ground Without Compromise (p. 53), suggests disgust over sex-selection abortions might be for one of at least three reasons: It’s sexist, it’s a crime against society, or it’s a crime against humanity. But none of these reasons work unless the unborn are actually human. If it were merely sexist, then this could be remedied by ensuring that an equal number of male and female fetuses are aborted. Yet no one recommends killing male fetuses to balance the numbers out. It’s not a crime against society. Concerns for the beauty and order of society do not really account for our disgust. It is perceived as wrongs not against something but someone. And it can’t be a crime against humanity unless the beings being wronged are actual humans. Potential humans cannot be harmed. In order to be a potential something, it is an actual something else. If it is merely a potential human, that would make it actually something less significant, like an animal mass or tissue organism. But it is not a crime against humanity to remove a piece of tissue or kill an animal organism.

The pro-choice position is that all women should be able to abort because abortion is inextricably tied up into a woman’s reproductive rights. If you believe Thomson, that a woman should be able to abort because she should not be legally compelled to give her body as “life support” to the child, then you must also agree with Thomson that she can abort for any reason, even if you, personally, find the reason unpalatable. And if your position is that abortion is permissible because the unborn are ot part of the moral community (that is, they are not yet a “person”), then you’re not really causing any harm to anything by having a sex-selection abortion.

This is why Christopher Kaczor argues, in his book The Ethics of Abortion (p.198), “Discriminating between non-persons, for example plucking the red roses but leaving the white, is not ethically problematic in itself, since these plants do not have rights nor do they merit equal respect as persons.” Sex-selection abortions are simply not morally problematic unless the entities being discriminated against are fully human with the same moral worth we have.

25 thoughts on “Why Are Sex-Selective Abortions Morally Problematic?”

  1. Hmmm … I'm not sure I agree. For one thing, I would disagree with the statement that "you're not really causing any harm to anything by having a sex-selection abortion [if] the unborn are not a part of the moral community."

    Consider a hypothetical situation in which it is possible to create a device that acts a barrier to the uterus, only letting in sperm that contain a Y chromosome, with the intent to reduce the number of females in the world. Obviously this is not a direct violation of anyone's human rights, but it's still definitely an ethical problem!

    My position is that ideally nothing that isn't a human rights violation should be illegal, even if it's immoral and should be discouraged, but I think most people would disagree with that premise.

    (As an aside, I *do* think it is hypocritical to say that sex-selective abortion should be made illegal, but not abortion based on disability status, which is widespread.)

  2. I think an argument can be made (though I'm not sure I agree with it) that sex selective abortion should be legally prohibited, even without assuming a fetus has any moral significance of its own. I certainly think there are moral issues with polluting the atmosphere, cutting down forests, things like that, even though neither tress nor air are part of the moral community, because those things have indirect effects on people who are part of the moral community. A similar logic may apply here. History and sociology show that in societies where there are a lot of young men and not a lot of young women for them to mate with, those young men have a tendency to commit acts of violence. Sex selective abortion would likely create such a society (short of some government program to ensure an equal number of sex selective abortions of both sexes, and how you create such a program that doesn't infringe someone's bodily autonomy I have no idea). Therefor, for the sake of preventing violence against real people twenty years down the road, it may be necessary to prohibit sex selective abortion today. (again, I'm not sure I agree with this argument, I'm just saying it's a coherent argument against sex selective abortion that doesn't require an assumption about the personhood of the fetus).

  3. Do you respond with: "Yes I know you're human but it's still your mom's choice (to kill you if she wants)?"

    Not advocating this but this is the a logically consistent position. If parents have the right to end the life of their child at one stage in development, why can't they end that life at any other stage of development?

  4. Argent, what (I think) Clinton is arguing is that if we assume the unborn is potentially human then his/her attributes must also be potential attributes.

    A being that is potential cannot have actualized characteristics or they would also be actualized. As gender is an actualized characteristic and not a potential characteristic it stands to reason that the human being present in his/her mother's womb is also an actual rather than potential human being.

    P. S. Clinton if I misinterpreted your logic on this point please correct me.

  5. Your second point is a very interesting scenario. It would definitely cause societal problems, however as it only affects potential human beings it does not directly harm anyone.

  6. The only portion of this argument that I see weakness in is the refuting a "crime against society" part. If we consider that the unborn are not fully unique people deserving of all rights, we can still see the problem societies where skewed numbers of boys over girls has caused from severe problems (i.e. rural China where women are kidnapped by older men because there aren't enough women around in their own age group). Again, if we consider the unborn undeserving of even the most fundamental rights (and I do not agree with this statement) then I could still see sex selective abortions as being as harmful as if people had a 99% effective way to choose sex of their fetus prior to conception, and exercised that.

    Granted, it isn't worthy of the guttural disgust pro-choice people will typically reserve for sex selective abortions – suggesting it isn't their true reason – but at least on the surface, the argument against societal harm doesn't hold.

  7. Yeah, sometimes you'll encounter people who aren't interested in thinking rationally about the abortion issue. Sometimes I'll just end a conversation prematurely, but sometimes I'll try to press them on how having a "choice" doesn't necessarily justify the choice. We can't justify killing a toddler because it's the parents' "choice," so neither can we justify abortion for that reason. Sometimes we have to really get to the bottom of why that person is pro-choice, because it's also possible that they have assumptions about abortion that they're not aware of, which usually manifests itself in the phrase "it just *feels* different to me." Sometimes they really are irrational and unwilling to budge on their position that is obviously mistaken. Sometimes you just can't help it.

  8. I think you have two different scenaiors in mind and are conflating them. When I say you're not harming anything, I'm talking about the unborn, themselves. If they are not human persons, then you are not harming them by having an abortion, even if it's for sex-selective reasons. And this is something that any philosopher, even pro-choice philosophers, accept. They argue that the unborn can't be considered "persons" because they're not harmed by being killed (this is, of course, mistaken, but a topic for another conversation).
    So in your thought experiment, you're not harming a human being by preventing them from being conceived as a girl. You're right that there is a harm to humanity in that we need a near equal balance of men and women to continue our species procreating, but that's another issue entirely. You're not harming a specific person by killing them for belonging to the wrong gender.
    I think that all laws carrying some kind of moral weight to them. Whether only "human rights violations" should be illegal is questionable, I would think, and would need to be unpacked a bit before I could say yea or nay on that position.

  9. Sort of, but not quite. 🙂

    My position is that there is no such thing as potential persons. There is such a thing as potential humans, but we have to make a distinction between "active" potential and "passive" potential. Sperm and eggs are potential persons in the same way that flour and sugar is potentially a cake. Flour and sugar could go in to make anything, or nothing They can't be considered potentially a cake in the same way that human beings have the potential to actualize their capacities, say the capacity for rational thought.

    So sperm and egg are potential humans but they only have a passive potential. Left alone they won't become a human being, only by fusing together will a human being result. Conversely, once a human is conceived, they have the actual potential to develop certain capacities (e.g. consciousness, rational thought, speech, sight, etc.) and to develop certain features (e.g. arms, legs, head, eyes, etc.). These are active potentials because the unborn organism from when he/she is conceived develops these from within him/herself. Once conception occurs, the organism is on a self-directed path of development.
    So the sperm and the egg are only passively potential human beings. If you are to prevent the sperm and the egg from fusing, you are not harming anyone because there is no one to harm. The sperm and the egg have the passive potential to conceive a human being, but there is no potential "someone" who is harmed, as a human zygote would be harmed if he is prevented from becoming rational (since the zygote, by nature, has the capacity to develop rationality and will, if allowed to develop normally).
    So only if there is an actual human person present would they be harmed by being killed, especially if the only reason they are killed is because they are the wrong gender. We wouldn't allow someone to kill their toddler because she's a girl, so we shouldn't allow abortion for that reason, either.

  10. That's a good point. I think Steve Wagner was trying to illustrate that sex-selective abortion being a "crime against society" doesn't account for our disgust of the act, itself. We still see a sex-selective abortion as wrong because of what it does to the individual unborn entity, discriminating against it based on gender. So while there is a concern about society not having enough boys or girls, that doesn't really seem to explain why it would be wrong to have a sex-selection abortion sparesely. For example, say there was an overabundance of boys. It would still be wrong to encourage women to abort boys for the simple fact that they are boys in an attempt to balance out the population.

  11. Yes, I think that's a cogent argument, but I think it would be ultimately mistaken.
    For example, we are not justified in punishing someone before they commit a crime. We just don't really know what the future holds. We can't justify an act, or preventing an act, based on what could happen in the future. Sex trafficking still goes on here in America, despite the fact that there is an abundance of potential mates.
    Plus, abortion supporters have different arguments to justify abortion, either denying the unborn are persons, or justiying abortions because the woman should not be "legally compelled" to be life-support for the unborn child. Either way, it would also justify sex-selective abortions, since those two scenarios justify abortion-on-demand, and if abortion really is essential "health care" for women, then I don't see how the government could stop a woman from legally having a sex-selective abortion.
    Finally, it's true that sex-selective abortions may have adverse affects on the future of society, but there could be ways around it. Abortion clinics could keep a running tally of which children are aborted so that they could allowed women to have sex-selective abortions to keep things balanced out.

  12. I appreciate you taking the time to read the article.
    Of course, it's always a tragic situation when a child has to grow up unwanted. But at the end of the day, what matters is what's *true*, not what makes us feel better emotionally. It seems more reasonable to get children out of unwanted situations, rather than killing them so that they don't grow up in those situations. I'm sure you wouldn't say that we should kill toddlers or the homeless just because they're unwanted, especially if the motivation is to save them from anymore suffering. And if your position is that it would be better to kill them early on, I'm still not sure I would agree. After all, would it be permissible to kill a newborn or an infant to save them from a life of suffering? If not, then I don't think we can justify killing a human embryo or fetus for that reason, either.

  13. I probably should also admit that this particular topic-of gender selection is a very, very….emotional/touchy… topic for me because I have so many sons (5)and occasionally I've heard negative things to me about my pursuit to have one last baby girl as if I have no right to fulfill my dream because I already have 5 boys. I haven't aborted ANY babies much less any boys and I tell people "Hey, look, I've paid my dues, I'm raising what I created" but I'll never forget the day that my three youngest sons were acting up while we were in line waiting to buy clothes for them that I'd spent so much effort gathering for them (just the right sizes, right prices, right look-a HUGE effort, so no way was I getting out of line) only to have a lady behind me in the checkout line who obviously was disgusted with my (temporarily) rowdy boys say to me, "DONT have any more kids-because you obviously can't control the ones you have". I am a pretty friendly person but I had this INTENSE desire to smash her face in. I told her no.1. Children don't exist to be "controlled" nor do they come with remote controls and 2. She was lucky their dad wasn't there because I'd have had him take the kids home while I gave her my fist, oops, I mean "opinion" on her opinion of MY reproductive choices out in the parking lot.

  14. I agree with Clinton on this. Your argument only works if you consider abortion to be morally justifiable. Else, a similar argument could also apply to things such as infanticide (especially in the case of a shortage of adoptive parents), et cetera. However, not everyone agrees that abortion is morally justifiable, and thus, you appear to be begging the question here. Plus, this is not to mention the fact that there are cases where females get abortions but where this prenatal offspring's father *wants* to raise his offspring. Thus, should females be prevented from getting abortions in cases such as this one (since in such cases, the offspring is already wanted)?

  15. I completely agree with you in this regard, Clinton.

    As a side note, someone could have even used a similar argument to justify things such as the Holocaust by saying that it's better to quickly kill millions of Jews right now than to risk having them spend the rest of their lives in misery under Communist rule.

  16. That's a good point. I'm sure most, if not all, pro-choice people would say that she should still have the abortion because the father doesn't matter at all, if she doesn't want the child she shouldn't have to go through with the pregnancy and give birth just to give the child away (it's a similar objection to the adoption argument). But the reality is *no* child is unwanted, even if they are unwanted by the mother. There are more parents waiting to adopt than there are children to adopt because they're being aborted.

  17. Yeah, I've found that many pro-choice people will say "my body, my choice" when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to raising more than one or two kids. They don't seem to think "my body, my choice" applies when you actually *want* children. I'm sorry that lady was such a jerk.

  18. Clinton, the government prohibits things based on harms that may or may not occur in the future all the time. For example, we criminalize driving drunk not because something bad happens every time someone drives drunk (it doesn't), but because driving drunk is more likely to lead to something bad happening. That's a perfectly sufficient reason. The government draws lines between legal and illegal acts based on what might happen in the future all the time. That is basically the job of a legislature in a nutshell. What the government can't do is punish someone before they commit the illegal act on the speculation that they might commit the illegal act in the future.

    I find the compelled life-support argument to be complete BS. To me it all comes down to whether the fetus is a person, I don't think that it is, and given that the only interest in general is the woman's bodily autonomy, which does justify abortion in general. But that isn't inconsistent with depriving the woman of specific information (the sex of the fetus), if there is a good policy argument for doing that.

    I don't understand your last point. Keeping track of what they are doing doesn't change what they are doing, it just provides better records.

  19. I disagree that every child is wanted by someone…I think there is a vast shortage of people who genuined WANT a handicapped child, a black child, a diseased or otherwise unhealthy child and then stop to imagine that some children are born with all 3 and I honestly don't imagine there are ENOUGH (note: I didn't say there are NONE) adults wanting to raise black/handicapped/diseased children. I'm not attempting to promote racism whatsoever. I'm more attempting to point out that that is a fantasy because if it was the truth there would not be so many children starving to death in this world or being beaten to death, etc.

  20. Just for balance I'd also like to point out how many homeless children there are in India foraging for food in garbage dumps…to underscore that I'm not trying to say that black children are *intrinsically* less valuable in any way, I'm only saying that there are NOT as many adults or homes as are needed right now. I don't mean to in any way be advocating abortion though. I might be "guilty" of excusing it a little though, but never advocating it.

  21. Drunk driving is a different situation. Driving while drunk is inherently dangerous because it impairs your ability to drive. But making sex-selective abortion illegal is not an inherently dangerous thing, no more than abortion, itself, is. We can't make poverty illegal just because poverty has a greater chance of turning someone into a thief later in life. If the unborn are not persons, and if bodily rights arguments succeed (I wholeheartedly disagree about them being BS), then we can't come in the way of a woman's reproductive rights. Whether or not abortion is right or wrong depends on what the unborn is, not on its affect on society. I think abortion has detrimental effects on society already, but I don't think that's sufficient reason to show that abortion should be illegal, necessarily.

    My last point is that there is a way to get around the potental problem of unbalancing genders. For example, if someone has a sex-selective abortion for a girl, then you would have to allow sex-selective abortion for a boy before you could allow another pregnant woman to abort a girl for sex-selective abortions. That way, you could keep the genders balanced out while still allowing sex-selective abortion.

  22. I actually think you are incorrect. There are many people who are willing, and who have done so, to adopt children with disabilities and other nationalities. People starving on the street doesn't really have anything to do with adoption. Not only are there many organizations in the US dedicated to trying to feed people overseas, but it's more difficult to feed people overseas than people realize. You can get the food to them, but a corrupt government will intercept the food and not give it to the people who need it. There are many causes for poverty.

  23. I wasn't comparing drunk driving to making sex-selective abortion illegal, I was comparing it directly to sex-selective abortion. You said that we can't justify preventing an act based on what might happen in the future, and I responded that drunk driving is a case where we do exactly that, as are most criminal laws.

    I never said bodily autonomy arguments generally were BS, I said the compelled life-support argument specifically, the argument that bodily autonomy somehow overrides the fetuses right to life, is BS.

    When we talk about prohibiting sex-selective abortions, I took that what we meant was depriving women of the information necessary to choose a sex-selective abortion (the sex of the fetus) while still allowing them to make whatever choice they wish about abortion in general. What you propose, prohibiting some women from getting abortions to make genders balance out, is obviously a violation of their bodily autonomy.

  24. The US feeding homeless kids on the streets of other countires is not a justification for bringing tens of thousands of more extremely-hard-to-place babies into the world to suffer the same fate. Growing up on the streets is a very hard life here in the USA but growing up on the streets in other countries is undoubtedly even more horrific. They aren't going to nice warm foster homes-they are suffering from diseases and getting no medical or dental care, they are being raped by strangers, and most will not be being taught how to read, they will be learning how to steal, etc. Last but not least, even if every last one went to a nice warm foster here in the USA I challenge you to accept the reality that even that is a horrible way to grow up because I DID grow up that way and I hated it and have my own box of sh*tty life experiences that came from growing up in foster homes such as being forced to be a live in babysitter for a dozen non-related siblings-what kind of childhood is that?! it's not, it's SLAVE LABOR.


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