Women, like men, live in societies and make choices based on the norms and constraints that exist within those societies. Accepting diversity means accepting the fact that different people hold different conceptions of the good life. As long as people make autonomous choices within those constraints, the government should keep out of it.
A British or an American-born woman will likely choose to abort her foetus if she has no means to support it, or if bringing it up would affect her circumstances to such as an extent that she finds unacceptable. She makes the choice based on the constraints of her community, which holds financial independence and material affluence to high regard.
Can someone meaningfully argue against that woman’s right to abort? Can one object on the grounds that she is forced into it due to the pressures imposed upon her by the cultural norms of western societies? I think not. Yes, you could object to the abortion on religious or other grounds, but not using the argument that it is a product of cultural oppression.
Gruesome as it may be, sex-selective abortion falls within the same parameters. Sex-selective abortion is a practice that responds to the norms of some cultures, in the same way as financially-motivated abortions are a product of decision within the constraints of western liberal cultures. Insofar as it is the autonomous choice of women, where informed adults exercise their agency over their reproductive rights within the inevitable constraints of their societies or cultures, the state cannot legitimately intervene. As such, the amendment to the law to explicitly criminalise sex-selective abortion, has a hidden agenda: to criminalise all abortions and in doing so to restrict women’s reproductive freedoms.
The state should not be in the business of regulating people’s lives. Rather, it should guarantee that the women in question make autonomous decisions without coercion, and that they are aware of alternative options available to them; options that they might so choose if and when they want to.
The state should guarantee that the women in question enjoy a substantive right of exit from their cultures. A right of exit is very different from forcing a woman to give up her reproductive rights. Similarly, providing a right of exit should not entail the destruction of her culture, as it provides context-of-choice for her – a term coined by the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka.
Guaranteeing autonomous choice and a substantive right of exit for women, means that the state must guarantee that women have a right to education and that they are aware of the existence of a safety net beyond the structures of their culture. Both conditions rest on the availability of a welfare state that will provide educational opportunities, structures that will help women to get back on their feet if they choose to alienate themselves from their families and friends, and overall gender equality within society: in the job market, in universities, in the media, in the arts and, of course, in public office.
Restricting women’s reproductive rights is not the way to go. On the practical side, there is no way to enforce such a measure without the state shoving its nose into people’s private lives (the law already prohibits SSAs, the new amendment wants to recognise the “rights of the unborn” independent of the pregnant woman, as many academics rightly argued in a letter to the Telegraph). More substantially though, it doesn’t solve the problem. If it’s not sex-selective abortion it will be something else. And then something else. And some more. How far do we want to take it before our private decisions are first vetted by the value-system of the majority societal cultures?
A small state, as the one envisioned by the Conservative party, cannot guarantee people’s right to live their lives as they see fit. The erosion of the welfare provisions of the state leaves it unable to guarantee a substantive right of exit of individuals from their cultures. It can only act as a bully — by intervening and asserting its authority through a blanket ban on some practices, which rests on the arrogant superiority that women in minority cultures are victims of oppression who cannot make autonomous decisions.
In doing so, the sack of Aeolus opens and more restrictions on women’s control over their bodies is under way. Now it’s self-selective abortion, in a few years, provided that the majority culture deems it prudent, it might be all abortions, “our” abortions. When we talk about the rights of “others” is easy to miss how their restriction could backlash against the rights that feminists have fought for and won after centuries of oppression by us, men.
Am I the right person to talk about women’s reproductive rights? Probably not. I will never experience giving birth and I will never be in a position where I will have to make choices such as these. Nevertheless, neither are most western activists who campaign in favour of the explicit criminalisation of sex-selective abortions. The voices that need to be amplified, those we really need to hear, are the voices of women who face this choice.
If the objective is not to ban abortions altogether, if there is no hidden agenda against all abortions behind the proposed amendment, then we need to start talking about the empowerment of women and the unjust hierarchical structures that constrain the options available to them. We must engage with women who face decisions that we find problematic and learn from them instead of classifying them as victims of oppression who have no agency or control over their lives.
And history can teach us a few things on that. Not too long ago, France banned the veil in public schools. Three girls were expelled from their school for refusing to conform. A great debate took place, from which the only people missing were the three girls whose choice to wear the veil was considered problematic by the majority of French people. When the girls were later interviewed it became obvious that their decision to wear the veil was autonomous and reasoned, and that the veil was an assertion of their identity rather than a product of an oppressive culture that left them no other choice.
We need to avoid the restriction of women’s right to choose how to deal with their own bodies and we need to take positive steps to make sure that the choices they make reflect the exercise of their informed judgement and not the pressure of their families or cultures. Explicitly criminalising sex-selective abortions achieves neither objective. Instead, it will endanger the lives of women who will seek alternative — underground — means to get those abortions and will, at the same time, limit the reproductive rights of women in general, as is the objective of the so called pro-life group behind the proposed amendment.