Two related articles published last week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal have raised new concerns about the practice of sex-selective abortion in Canada. Focusing on Indian-born Canadian mothers, the articles collectively suggest that if such women have two daughters already, some are having abortions to ensure that their third child is a son. One of the studies, which focuses on Ontario, suggests that Indo-Canadian women who have had two daughters and had abortions are nearly twice as likely as other women to have a boy as their third child.
Response to these studies has included a range of proposals intended to curb the practice. Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, for example, has suggested that medical professionals need to conform to professional guidelines about sex-selective abortions by ensuring that they are not “complicit” in providing them. Others have similarly suggested that access to sex-selective abortion should be hindered by strengthening the law and introducing legislation to stop the practice.
In Canada, where access to abortion is already limited for many women, new restrictions are ill-advised. Since 1988, when the existing abortion law in the Criminal Code was struck down, ultra-conservative MPs have proposed laws and motions to re-criminalize a women’s reproductive rights, including proposing bans on sex selection. Outside major urban centres, women have to drive long distances to have abortions, and in New Brunswick, they must also wait an additional 24 hours after showing up at the clinic. In a context where abortion access is already fraught, we should be working to improve access to care rather than restrict it.
Beyond access, abortion providers do not want to police women seeking care. If a woman no longer wants to be pregnant for one reason or another, or feels for some reason that she should have an abortion, that is her prerogative—and providers should not be put in the position of having to tell a woman that she must continue a pregnancy against her will. Abortion in Canada should be made widely available, regardless of the reason.
Another proposed solution has been to place restrictions on the disclosure of the sex of a fetus until at least 30 weeks of gestation, after which abortion is rare. This has been critiqued as an unwieldy proposal, as some women will require ultrasounds prior to 30 weeks, and they are legally entitled to see their medical records. Further, the non-disclosure of fetal sex may lead some women to seek ultrasounds outside the country, or to identify the sex of their fetus through other means. Restricting disclosure might work to reduce the number of women seeking abortions following the identification of fetal sex, but it will do little to make those pregnancies wanted.
The trouble with all these proposed solutions is that they fail to see the forest for the trees. Sex-selective abortion is not about a few people wanting, or not wanting, to have female children. Nor is it about the valuation of boys within a particular ethno-cultural community. Rather, sex-selective abortion is one extreme manifestation of a continuum of sex discrimination that is prevalent in many aspects of Canadian society at large. Country-wide, the gender wage gap continues to persist, women still engage in the majority of uncompensated care work, and while there are currently a record number of women in Parliament, only 26 per cent of sitting MPs are female. In contemporary Canada, women simply are not treated as equals —Indo-Canadian or otherwise.
In addition to the devaluation of women, sex-selective abortion is about the assumption of a strict relationship between the blurry image that appears on the ultrasound and who the child yet-to-be-born may one day be. The emphasis put on fetal sex apparent in the emerging prevalence of “gender reveal” parties and the excitement of finding out that “it’s a boy” (or girl) is increasingly absurd. The sex of a fetus does not tell us how a child will behave; what that child will want; whether they will like wearing dresses or hockey jerseys; or if they will want to be a scientist or a ballet dancer. The child may want all those things. They may eschew them completely. Rather than restrict abortion access or disclosure of sex in ultrasound images, we should be working to de-emphasize the idea that sex matters, and to help children realize that sex (and the gendered expectations that are too often tied to sex) should not determine who they are.
The incidence of sex-selective abortion should not be seen as an isolated practice that occurs in the Indo-Canadian community. Sex-selective abortion is but one of many practices that marginalizes women and reinforces the assumption that someone’s sex can and should determine their fate.
Alana Cattapan is a Canadian Institutes of Health Research postdoctoral fellow in the faculty of medicine at Dalhousie University. Her research examines the intersections of gender, public policy, and assisted reproduction in Canada.
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