Sex selection is the active decision by parents to choose a particular sex for their child. It can be accomplished either pre or post-implantation of an embryo, or post-conception.

Recently, the case against sex selection was brought up in Canadian politics when Conservative backbencher Stephen Woodworth put forth a motion that would re-examine the issue of whether a fetus has the same rights as a human being under the Criminal Code of Canada, essentially re-opening the abortion debate in Canada.

The Minister for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, voted to pass the motion. She has since been criticized by some who claim she should be championing the rights of women and that her vote for a motion that re-opens the abortion debate in Canada goes against said mandate. Ambrose claims to have voted in favour of the motion due to the practice of sex selection, a practice that is apparently becoming pervasive in Canada.

Ambrose later took to her Twitter account in defense, writing, “I have repeatedly raised concerns about discrimination of girls by sex selection abortion: no law needed, but we need awareness!”

Without entering into the various rights issues at play in the abortion debate, there are important questions to be discussed regarding the global pervasiveness of sex selection, the root causes of it, and what might happen if sex selection continues at current rates.

How prevalent is sex selection and where is it occurring?

According to Mara Hvistendahl’s book “Unnatural Selection: Choosing boys over girls, and the consequences of a world full of men” there are approximately 160 million missing girls from Asia’s population largely as a result of sex selection.

In countries where sex selection is widely practiced, sex ratios are dramatically skewed. At the height of the population imbalance problem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sex ratios in China were 120 boys to every 100 girls, while India saw 112 to 100 and South Korean, Taiwan and Singapore all registered over 109 to 100.

To put these figures into perspective, 160 million missing girls is equal to about one tenth of China’s total population, over one fifth of the European Union’s population, and the entire female population of the United States.

Underlying causes and the role of the West

There are a number of reasons why sex selection has grown in popularity and yet no one reason can be the sole explanation for this phenomenon. Part of the reason why it became increasingly popular in China and India traces back to Western pressure for population control measures during the 1970s and 1980s after the rise of Malthusian thinking on population control.

Hvistendahl dedicates an entire chapter in her book to this concept, namely that in the 1970s, when faced with the prospect of soaring populations and so-called limited food supplies, Western doctors, demographers and anthropologists began a campaign in India for population control. They recognized that sons were preferable to daughters for cultural reasons ranging from ancestral rites, costs of dowries, social mobility, and inheritance.

She also describes a speech given in 1968 by Steven Polgar, the head of research for Planned Parenthood in which he urges “sociologists [to] stimulate biologists to find a method of sex determination, since some parents have additional children in order to get one of the specified sex.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American and British governments invested millions of dollars into family planning initiatives in India, which eventually catalyzed the introduction of ultrasound technology as a method of sex determination. It was at this time that women began to abort female fetuses out of preference for male children even though at the time, ultrasound technology was only able to determine the sex of a fetus during the third trimester.

Similar attempts at population control occurred in China, eventually leading the government to implement a one-child policy. Subject to this policy, Chinese women began to seek out sex determination technologies and abortion clinics to ensure that they could have one male child.

Sex selection techniques

Sex selection does not necessarily entail sex selective abortion, or what has become to be known as female feticide in some parts of the world. However, in developing countries and countries with widespread poverty, sex selective abortions are either the only available option or the only affordable option to ensure the birth of a son over a daughter.

There are a number of ethical questions that are routinely raised over the morality of abortions generally and the exclusive abortion of female fetuses more specifically. Particularly, right to life groups are concerned about the rights of the unborn fetus and often these rights are pitted against the rights of the woman to choose.

In developed nations where abortion might be legal but morally questionable, there are other sex selection techniques that are available to parents.

In the United States, parents have the option of using a technology called Microsort that separates x-bearing sperm from y-bearing sperm. This nearly guarantees that parents will be able to choose the sex of their child through intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IFV).

Even before the practice of gender selection was made illegal in Canada in April 2004, doctors were still questioning its moral and ethical nature.

Dr. George Woo, medical director of IVF Canada and physician at Toronto East General Hospital, told Canada.com in 2004 that, “couples ask me all the time. I tell them we don’t do that in Canada. It’s not something we’re interested in. If they go to the States, they don’t tell me about it.”

The Microsort website states that the technology is reserved for couples that either wish to avoid X chromosome related diseases or to engage in family balancing.

The chief director of Microsort, Dr. Keith Blauer told Canada.com that the sex selection which Microsort technology offers might be a way to stop female fetus abortions, as well as the abandonment of female children in some developing nations.

“This could help them have a balanced family early, instead of having more and more children to get the desired gender,” he said.

Why is sex selection a hot topic?

Ethical issues aside for a moment, there is a growing concern over the fact that in Asia, where there are an estimated 160 million women missing from the population, a number of social and economic issues are going to become serious problems as a result of the gender imbalance in the overall population.

In a 2011 interview with magazine New Scientist, Professor Shuzhuo Li from the Institute for Population and Development Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong University said, “in 2005, there were 32 million more men than women under the age of 20 in China. Young men with no prospect of marriage become a disruptive force in society. And with no one to marry, they will have no children and no one to take care of them when they are too old to work.”

Such problems as those identified by Professsor Li identified last year were also discussed in the early 1970s by John Postgate, as it was starting to become apparent that female fetus abortions were on the rise.

Hvistendahl quotes him in her book as positing whether a kind of purdah, a practice of concealing women from men, would be necessary as the numbers of males rose and the numbers of women decreased.

In 1973 Postgate proposed in the New Scientist that: “women’s right to work, even travel alone freely, would probably be forgotten transiently. Polyandry might well become accepted in some societies, some might treat their women as queen ants, others as rewards for the most outstanding (or most determined) males.”

How do we deal with sex selection?

In a recent article arguing against the case of sex selection in Canada in the Toronto Star, former President for Amnesty International Canada Rob Robertson begins by stating that, “in a perfect world, sex selection would not exist. Parents would not prefer a male child, even to achieve a gender balance in their offspring. Vulnerable women would not be subjected to abortions, including late-term abortions because they are carrying a female child, or be required to be continually pregnant until a male is born. The increase in trafficking of women due to adverse sex ratios would dry up and alleged associated ills such as an increased number of rapes, abduction and wife-sharing would end. At the political level, the predominant number of men would not re-enforce male control over political power.”

However, Robertson also points out that sex selection becomes a difficult issue to discuss when it is framed in terms of discrimination and rights talk because it can create slippery slope arguments, where the exception or allowance of one particular clause naturally opens the door for the same action for another related one.

“Some disability rights advocates will argue that viewing sex selection as discriminatory logically opens the door to banning the termination of a disabled fetus too” Robertson writes.

Beyond allowing slippery slope arguments, discussions of sex selection mediated through the rhetoric of rights also pits two groups against one another, namely the rights of women to choose and the rights of unborn fetuses.

This is precisely why the introduction of Conservative MP Stephen Woodgrove’s aforementioned motion was controversial, as was Minister Ambrose’s decision to support it based on the issue of sex selective abortions (which are already illegal in Canada). In contrast, Robertson argues that sex selection should be framed within the societal issues that it can cause due to skewed sex ratios.

By framing the issue as such, it helps to open a dialogue about other women’s issues,like the right to equal pay in the work force and the equality of women in politics.

Professor Li told the New Scientist that empowering women and reducing the “powerful cultural preference for sons” is key to changing the way people think about sex selection. He started a campaign called Care for Girls in order to do this in China.

“It uses adverts and public meetings to inform people about how dire the situation is, explaining how the gender imbalance could adversely affect their own family in the future. They give parents with daughters certain forms of financial assistance like low-interest loans, social security payments and special consideration for land allocation” he said.

At first, this kind of thinking may seem irrelevant to countries like Canada and the United States where sex selective abortions are relatively rare. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that Indo-Canadians are continuing the practice of sex selective abortions in Canada. In fact, in April 2012 the Toronto Star ran a story about six Greater Toronto Area hospitals that refuse to disclose the gender of the fetus during ultrasounds. All of these hospitals are in areas that have high South Asian immigrant populations.

If anything, this indicates that gender imbalance is not only a problem in the developing world, and while it may be far less common in developed nations, it is a hot topic and one that may have the potential to reopen the abortion debate in Canada.