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Of all the culture-war issues, the endless battles over gay marriage and immigration and so on that divide liberal Left and conservative Right, abortion is surely the most bitter. You can see why, or you should be able to. It places utterly implacable moral imperatives against each other. For one side, it is straightforward murder. For the other, it is tied up with every human’s right to do what we want with our own bodies. Large parts of both sides are completely incapable of seeing the argument from the other perspective. They may as well be speaking different languages.
And, human nature being what it is, we tend to ignore stories that don’t fit our favoured narrative; it’s an established and well-known psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, which essentially comes down to Simon and Garfunkel’s “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. So horror stories of dangerous backstreet operations in countries where abortion is illegal are ignored by the pro-life side; horror stories like the Kermit Gosnell atrocity are ignored by the pro-choicers. And scientific studies are cherry-picked with fastidious care to always show that My Side Has It Right.
In this manner, the pro-choice side – me included – has been largely quiet on the subject of sex-selective abortions. Earlier this year, undercover reporters for this newspaper found that doctors in British clinics were willing to perform abortions on foetuses for no other reason than its sex. The Crown Prosecution Service has now decided to drop charges against the doctors involved. Apparently they believe there may be sufficient evidence to secure a prosecution, but it would not be in the “public interest” to do so.
Right-wing, religious writers, understandably, have been voluble in their outrage. Words like gendercide were used. From the pro-choice Left, though, there has been little response, at least that I’ve seen (and I’ve done a couple of site:theguardian.com and site:newstatesman.com Google searches). You can see why: this is not a story which fits well with a narrative of “easily available abortion is an important public good”. It might be easier to ignore it, and hope it goes away, and then leap up the next time someone dies from being denied an abortion in a Catholic country. I’m battling an instinct to ignore it myself.
But pro-choice feminists (which is how I’d describe myself) need to address it honestly. Silence implies that people are OK with sex-selective abortion (which will be mainly selecting against female foetuses). Perhaps some people are. I’m not, partly because population sex imbalances correlate enormously with crime: unattached young men are disproportionately likely to commit crimes. A 1 per cent sex imbalance appears to increase crime by 3.7 per cent, according to Berkeley researchers. But mainly it’s because the implication is that female children are worth less, that a boy is what you want. That is the attitude in many parts of the world. It shouldn’t be. It is wrong. You may feel a woman’s autonomy over her body overrides such concerns, but if so, the case must be made in the light of this story, not by ignoring it.