Columnists

Joyce Arthur
Motion 408 and sex-selection abortion: Pretending to care about women

| December 7, 2012
Knitted wombs. Photo: Jenn Farr/Flickr

With several female MPs at his side, Conservative MP Mark Warawa held a press conference Wednesday on Parliament Hill to promote his Motion 408, which would "condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination." How ironic, considering that his Conservative government has been busy institutionalizing discrimination against women since 2006, while Warawa and the rest of the anti-choice movement wants to send women back to the days of unsafe criminal abortions or mandatory motherhood.

It's very odd to see Warawa's sudden concern over the abortion of only female fetuses, when we know he hates all abortions.

In the U.S., sex-selection abortions of male fetuses appear to outnumber those of females, and it may not be much different in Canada. By trying too hard to appear sympathetic to women, Warawa falls into the trap of seeming to condone such abortions of male fetuses, while also managing to give his motion an unsavoury racist taint by focusing attention on ethnic communities in Canada that allegedly abort females for cultural reasons.

Since Warawa and his Greek Chorus of supporters are all fervently anti-choice (including Conservative MPs Joy Smith, Stella Ambler, Kelly Block, and let's not forget Rona Ambrose with her infamous tweet), what's the real motivation here? NDP leader Thomas Mulcair nailed it. He called the motion another attempt to re-open the abortion debate, pointing to the fact that it was introduced immediately after Parliament defeated Motion 312 on September 26.

Canada's anti-choice movement has learned to be stealthy and not attack abortion rights head-on. The repeated claims by Warawa and the women MPs that the motion is not about recriminalizing abortion, and their refusals to even discuss abortion, are simply not believable. Obviously, the goal of this motion is to try to increase public disapproval of abortion and cast doubt on women's capacity to make responsible decisions. Success would help pave the way for a later bill to ban sex-selection abortion, and ultimately to ban all abortions.

Warawa wants Parliament to "condemn this worst form of discrimination against females," which he calls "gender violence -- gendercide."

But women are the ones having sex-selection abortions, which means Warawa is accusing women of violence and gendercide -- and courtesy of MP Stella Ambler -- "atrocities." Ending discrimination against women does not start with making nasty accusations against them. Yes, sex selection can be a sexist act, but it's nonsensical to protect women from discrimination by restricting their rights. In India, laws against sex-selection abortion cause women to resort to unsafe and illegal abortion to avoid having a girl, and some may even face abuse and violence from their families if they bear a girl.

Warawa may be wrongly assuming that women are always coerced into aborting female fetuses. Of course, abortions are not something women want to do -- they make this difficult decision for one reason or another -- family needs, their personal circumstances, their health, or their own inability or reluctance to be a parent. As blogger Jane Cawthorne explains, having an abortion for reasons of sex selection is not much different than having one for financial reasons, or because the baby will be disabled. The answer is not to coerce a woman into giving birth to an unwanted girl just "to make some sort of anti-sexist point." Instead, we must strive to "make the world a place where little girls are as wanted as little boys, where the systemic discrimination of women is a thing of the past."

The vast bulk of this systemic discrimination arises directly or indirectly from women's childbearing capacity. This makes control over fertility the bedrock of women's rights. It's not possible for women to fully exercise any other fundamental right if they don't own their own bodies, and that entails the right to contraception and abortion.

In a recent rabble piece on the issue of sex selection, Anjali Kulkarni et al. pointed out the centrality of a reproductive justice framework for the pro-choice movement, which promotes a range of women's rights from different cultural perspectives, and doesn't look at abortion rights in isolation:

"While up-in-arms to defend 'female fetuses,' the Conservatives are silent about discrimination affecting women -- missing and murdered aboriginal women and the denial of indigenous sovereignty, criminalization and cuts to refugees, disability oppression, lack of childcare and pay equity, homophobia and transphobia, defunding of women's groups nationally and internationally, and threats to abortion rights."

Warawa's focus on sex-selection abortion to the exclusion of all other problems affecting women exposes his hypocrisy. While professing deep concern over discrimination against women and girls, the actions of his Conservative government since 2006 tell a very different tale. Murray Dobbin has called Harper's assault on women's rights "one of the most dramatic examples of his wider assault on democracy."

Let's start by recalling that Prime Minister Stephen Harper thinks women's rights organizations are a "left-wing fringe group."

Under his reign, the Conservatives cancelled the universal childcare program, abandoned pay equity legislation, closed down most of the regional Status of Women offices, changed Status of Women funding criteria to end support for advocacy or lobbying for law reform, cut the Court Challenges Program, barred public sector workers from making pay equity complaints, refused to fund safe abortion for women in developing countries, slashed funding from dozens of women's advocacy groups, eliminated the mandatory long-form census, increased the age of eligibility for Old Age Security, destroyed the gun registry, failed to hold a public inquiry into missing Aboriginal women, cut Aboriginal health services, and allowed votes on several anti-choice private member's bills and motions.

Now let's take a look at how women are treated by the anti-choice movement in general. Warawa himself started his anti-choice political career as a councillor for the City of Abbotsford, B.C. In 1999 and 2000, he sponsored motions that granted permission to the Abbotsford Right-to-Life Society to erect an anti-abortion display of thousands of crosses in a private field next to the freeway, each cross representing an abortion. The display has been up every year since then, despite complaints from female passersby who are traumatized at this public co-opting of their personal abortion experience. Anti-choice people have a way of misappropriating a woman's private experience that is absolutely none of their business, and making invisible the woman's own feelings, wishes and experience. It's extremely disrespectful -- and discriminatory.

Anti-choice laws are responsible for the deaths of 47,000 women a year in developing countries and the injuries of over 8 million, because women are forced to resort to unsafe illegal abortion. Recently, a sick pregnant woman in Ireland was refused an abortion to save her life because of Ireland's strict abortion laws. She died, because the anti-choice position boils down to the view that fetuses are worth more than women. Similar well-publicized deaths of women who were denied abortion have also occurred in Poland, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and other countries with restrictive abortion laws.

Even in developed countries with more liberal laws, women suffer and their rights are sacrificed. In the United States, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women "can now say for sure that feticide laws, and anti-abortion and other measures designed to establish 'personhood' for fertilized eggs, are providing the basis for the punishment of pregnant women whether they are seeking to end a pregnancy or go to term." In Canada, when Mulroney's Conservative government tried to pass a new abortion law in 1990, a Toronto woman tried to self-abort and died. She apparently believed that abortion was already criminalized -- the prized goal of anti-choicers in order to "protect" women.

The United Nations recently declared contraception to be a basic human right. Yet, anti-choice groups largely oppose birth control because they believe women's purpose is to have babies and sex should always be open to procreation. Meanwhile, lack of access to birth control leads to large numbers of unnecessary maternal deaths, and extreme poverty for women and their over-burdened families. Family planning can prevent one in three maternal deaths by delaying motherhood, spacing births, avoiding unintended pregnancies and abortions, and stopping childbirth when women have reached their desired family size.

The anti-choice movement often accuses pro-choice folks of promoting a "culture of death," with our alleged zeal for killing babies. But the real culture of death -- the one without quotation marks -- is the one waged by right-wing religious fundamentalists, who elevate the contents of women's wombs above that of women's own lives and health and rights. We vehemently "condemn this worst form of discrimination against females."

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.

Photo: Jenn Farr/Flickr