Recently I have read a couple different articles on the issue of gender-selection in birth and the impact this has now and will increasingly have in the future. As Soraya Chemaly points out in this article, an estimated 160,000,000 girls and women are not alive today because they were selectively discarded by their parents before or shortly after they were born. This number may become more comprehensible when we place it in a context such as the population of the United States. Given the current population of the US, this 160 million women would represent approximately the female portion of our country. Imagine that all the men in the US had NO women around them, no potential wives, no daughters, no female friends. Imagine what would happen among the young men who wanted to marry and have children. The scenario becomes quite frightening, as Chemaly points out. My friend Steve Weller, writing about the situation in China, points in a similar way to the effects of this growing imbalance.
Interestingly, social conservatives and social progressives respond quite differently to this issue. Both acknowledge it as a problem, which is a good starting point. However, conservatives see the fundamental issue as the availability and use of abortion to eliminate the unwanted daughters. Progressives argue that abortion is not the primary issue here. The issue, as Chemaly argues, is a world in which men are valued more highly than women. As she writes:
“The immorality in question isn't the use of tools to select babies, it is in the use of misogyny to inform culture and mandate the elimination of girls in preference for boys.”
In a world where men are favored and in which therefore having a son is considered more valuable than having a daughter, families are always going to find ways to increase the number of sons in proportion to the number of daughters. In a society such as China, with its one-child policy, this will mean the elimination of the unwanted daughters through whatever means is available. In other societies it may mean that a woman must give birth more times than she desires in order to produce that elusive son.
I am not a fan of abortion. I would like to see it become unnecessary and rare because each woman and couple would be able to choose when to have children and have the means needed to provide for the children they have, boys and girls. However, I must agree with Chemaly over Chuck Colson (see Weller's blog entry) that the underlying issue here is not the availability of abortion or lack thereof. “If the discrimination did not exist, the means would not be so abused.” The underlying issue is how cultures and societies value or devalue women. If a society places equal value on girls and boys, the issue won't be whether to abort the girls or not. But, as Chemaly says:
“Cultures that have no ethical or moral problems with the wholesale elimination of females, where girls and women are not valued, make little investment in their well-being. Girls are chronically under-cared for medically, under nourished, underclothed and undereducated.”
To focus the question solely on the availability of abortion allows social conservatives to avoid the broader issue of equality and the effects of inequality on women across the globe. They can, as Chemaly points out, decry abortion while voting against legislation that would help protect women from violence and exploitation.
There are no easy solutions to this imbalance. But the Church, the people of God, can lead the way by actively and vocally affirming the value of women and girls equal to that of men and boys. We can stop acting in ways within the Church that effectively devalue women. We can dismantle the patriarchal culture within the Church and offer a different model, one that in keeping with the teaching and actions of Jesus affirms the value and dignity of each person without regard to her or his gender. It may not change the world overnight, but it would be a positive step in the right direction.