On Tuesday and Wednesday in these pages, my fellow National Post columnists took up the question of sex-selection abortions – i.e. the selective abortion of fetuses following a scan that reveals the sex of the child. Their debate followed the publication of an editorial in theCanadian Medical Association Journal calling for measures to limit the practice in Canada. My colleagues demonstrated that if Canada is to have the world’s most extreme abortion regime – permitting the practice at any time, including at full term, for any reason, fully taxpayer-funded – it is inconsistent to be squeamish about the motivations behind those abortions.
While the problem of sex-selection abortions is presented as a pathology of Asian cultures that prefer boys to girls, it actually is not rare in respectable Canadian medical practice. The euphemism is “family balancing”: couples who already have a boy and want a girl, upon discovering another boy on the way, abort him and try again.
“You may disagree or feel uncomfortable with the practice but people who practise family balancing are not evil or nefarious,” Tim Caulfield told The Globe and Mail. He’s the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, giving an academic stamp of approval to abortions for sex selection if done by nice people.
I won’t add to the arguments my colleagues already made, but note that the debate ought to be a reminder of the scale of this scourge. It is more than 20 years since Amartya Sen, one of the world’s most humane and careful thinkers, both a Nobel-Prize-winning economist and a gifted philosopher, sounded the alarm. In his 1990 article in The New York Review of Books, Sen estimated then that 100 million women were “missing.”
Sen compared the usual ratio of females to males in societies where men and women generally receive equal nutrition and health care. While males usually outnumber females at birth – about 105 males for every 100 females – females tend to be hardier, with men being more liable to deaths by violence. The result is that there are usually more females in a population than males. Yet in certain parts of Asia – Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China – Sen found women significantly outnumbered by men. By his calculations, there were some 100 million of these “missing” women, 50 million in China alone.
Is all of this due to abortion of girls in utero? No. In 1990, much of it was due to female infanticide. But the arrival of inexpensive ultrasound technology in rural Asia in the 1990s meant that the killing became easier to do before birth rather than after. Other factors, including medical neglect of girls and even natural causes, have been added to the mix and a rather long debate about the cause of the missing women has taken place in the academic literature. But 20 years on, Sen’s thesis is generally conceded: The imbalance is the result of deliberate human choice, either before birth or after.
In China, under the massive violation of human rights known as the one-child policy, abortion is rampant. The sex selection problem has produced frightening imbalances. A 2009 paper by Therese Hesketh estimated that there are 32 million more men than women under the age of 20 in China. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that by 2020 some 24 million Chinese men will not be able to find wives. Forced prostitution, or sex slavery, is on the rise. Elderly people, often reliant upon their daughters for care, are more frequently abandoned. It is a social catastrophe that will soon have severe economic consequences.
Yet all this has been known for a long while. The world has more or less gotten used to it, and it is almost never raised as a matter of international concern. Particularly notable for their lack of interest is the abortion-rights community in the West, which seems willing to sacrifice literally millions of little girls in service of the abortion licence.
The editorial that sparked this week’s debate was written by Dr. Rajendra Kale, interim editorin-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. His editorials are expansive in scope. He has called on all doctors to support stiffer penalties for head injuries in hockey. He has argued that parking fees at hospitals are the equivalent of user fees for medical service, and therefore contrary to the Canada Health Act. He will find that he is likely to make more progress on head injuries and free parking than on sex selection and abortion. The world has known about it a long time. It just doesn’t care.