Straw-womanning the abortion debate

by Angela

The National Post recently published an article by Barbara Kay on the moral quandary that feminists face as a result of their belief that women should have a say in what happens to their bodies. Her argument goes something like this:

  1. Women in Canada are allowed to abort for any reason.
  2. In Asia, women selectively abort female fetuses.
  3. Therefore, feminism leads to the destruction of female fetuses. Gotcha!


We’re confronted with the sheer absurdity of this argument right from it’s opening statement:

There are only two polemically unassailable positions on abortion:

  1.  never, because it is always murder; and
  2.  whenever, because an unborn baby is part of the mother’s body, hers to dispense with as she wants.

I can only interpret Kay’s phrase “polemically unassailable positions” as meaning “the two simplest positions” because there are literally hundreds and probably thousands of articles arguing against both of these positions (ergo, they’re not unassailable). There are many rigourously argued positions that fall in between these two extremes which Kay would know if she’d bothered to do some research (e.g J. J. Thomson argues that even if fetuses have a right to life, it doesn’t follow that women shouldn’t be allowed to have abortions, and Mary Anne Warren argues that what matters is personhood as determined by a cluster of psychological traits). Reducing the debate down to two options ignores the nuanced and sophisticated debate that has taken place about abortion.

However, since I agree with 2 in the sense that I think women should have unilateral choice about what happens to their bodies let’s ignore the fact that Kay chooses to reduce a complex debate down to two choices and uses obviously loaded language to describe the position that she doesn’t agree with.

Her first tactic is to use the I-have-a-[insert appropriate type of friend here]-friend-who-agrees-with-me approach. We’ve all heard it before. I have a gay friend and he doesn’t think that there’s anything wrong with using the word ‘gay’ in a pejorative way. I have a black friend who doesn’t think I’m being racist when I say that black men are aggressive. And on and on it goes despite the fact that these attempts at argument don’t show anything. They’re just a way to pressure people into adopting the position being promoted and to make them feel stupid if they don’t.

The one reason that she does offer:

Thanks to early-pregnancy sex-revealing technology, over the last decade in Asia, an estimated 163 million female unborn babies have been selectively aborted. The ratio of boys to girls in India is now 112/100.

I suppose that she thinks we’re going to see the figures showing that in Asia (which includes many nations that have radically different social policies from Canada) there is a preference for male fetuses, be horrified, and dubiously conclude that since our feminist practices allowed this to happen we should drop them, hence the Gotcha! aspect of her argument. Of course, while pointing out that in Canada you can pretty much get an abortion for any reason, she doesn’t cite any statistics showing an increase in the male/female ratio here. With the variety of factors that contribute to these decisions from population-controlling social policies to institutionalized sexism you’d think it would occur to Kay that allowing women to have abortions for any reason may not be the most significant factor in the sex-selection process. But then again, that would mean this issue is a complex one, rather than one that could be reduced to two claims one of which could be knocked off with a half-assed argument.

Since Kay herself has claimed that the only two “unassailable positions” are to never allow abortion or to always allow it, and she clearly thinks that there are problematic consequences to allowing women to abort for any reason, her conclusion must be that we should never allow abortion.  Naturally the burden of solving this sex-selection problem falls on women because what other possible solution could there be?  Rather than dealing with the institutionalized sexism which leads to the view that women are less valuable than men we should (surprise, surprise) punish women by limiting their freedom.

The real problem is not a supposed connection between feminism and sex-selection which favours males but that anyone would think eliminating access to abortion to deal with a different complex issue would be the answer.

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