Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Challenging Sex-Selective Abortion in the United States

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


By Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

February 7, 2014

In 2012, the sensational events surrounding the defection of Chen Guancheng—a vocal opponent of China’s one-child policy—to the United States brought national attention to the tragedy of sex-selective abortion, particularly in countries such as China and India.  

Sex-selective abortion is indeed appalling because it combines two evils that subvert human dignity: elective abortion and gender discrimination. But as we in the United States race to defend the dignity of girls and women abroad, we have done very little to prevent these same evils here at home. 

Because of advances in genetic testing technology, parents in the United States no longer need to wait until eighteen to twenty weeks into pregnancy for an ultrasound to determine the gender of their unborn child. Over-the-counter genetic testing can determine the sex of a fetus as early as eight to ten weeks, making the decision to abort unwanted girls (or boys) easier for some. For parents using in vitro fertilization (IVF), many clinics will perform genetic tests on the embryo prior to implantation in the mother’s uterus.  Gender is only one of many characteristics which can be chosen with this technique, called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Some fertility clinics will also allow parents to influence the gender of their child by sorting X from Y sperm so that only the desired sperm is used for inseminating the mother. 

Recognizing the danger, other  Western countries—Canada, France, Germany, and Switzerland, among others, all of which have liberal elective abortion regulations—have banned sex-selective abortion and some, such as the United Kingdom, have also banned gender selection via PGD. However, no federal laws in the United States prohibit sex selection, and only four states have banned sex-selective abortion. Recent attempts to pass federal legislation in the United States failed, largely because of opposition from the pro-choice community.  

Aware that their opposition to legislation which aims to prohibit gender discrimination puts them in an awkward position, some abortion advocates in the United States argue that “sex-selective abortion is a problem worldwide, but not in our country.” According to an analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights think tank, "The experience of other countries has clearly demonstrated that [sex-selective abortion] bans are not only ineffective, but they further exacerbate gender discrimination by undermining women's autonomy and creating additional obstacles to women's health care."  

But human dignity cannot be simply reduced to individual autonomy. Enacting a broad federal ban on sex-selection, whether through abortion or reproductive technologies, would affirm our collective support for the dignity of all human life, especially females. Of course, any law that focuses on intent is by nature difficult to enforce, hence why hate crimes are difficult to prosecute successfully. Yet, as the lead author of the sex-selective abortion ban in the US House of Representatives said, “it’s also true that sometimes the law is a teacher…There’s something about the law saying that this is something as a society that we collectively agree is wrong that begins to cause people to look at their own conscience in that regard.”

Although American culture highly prizes autonomy, an overemphasis on individual autonomy runs counter to what the Bible teaches about community. We are each made in the image of God, not to be our own master, but to serve our Creator. We are designed by a God who has eternally existed in community within His own person to reflect His character. We are our brother (and sister’s) keeper.

When we imagine ourselves to be our own masters, to be supremely autonomous, we can begin to see others as means to our ends. This subversion of human dignity can lead to our seeing other human beings—particularly children—as something we “own,” as a commodity we “invest in,” whose gender we have a right to choose. While this is most obvious in cultures where female children are quite literally financial burdens for their families, the American trend to view the success of our children as a reflection of our worth as parents is also its own form of commodification.

In an age where technology has made sex selection increasingly accessible, the Christian community should take a firm stand against this most basic form of discrimination against women and girls. We must also combat gender discrimination outside the womb, thereby helping to change cultural attitudes and socioeconomic conditions that reinforce gender biases.

-  Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Bioethics & Public Policy Associate at the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity and a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill.  She is also a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice and a 2003 alumnae of the Center’s Civitas program in faith and public affairs.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”