Sex-Selective Abortion Is A Story About Sex Selection More Than A Story About Abortion

Ross Douthat writes about the popularity of sex-selective abortions in the third world, a subject he knows makes progressives uncomfortable. His mission is to persuade us that we should see this as a problem of abortions as such, rather than a problem of sex-selection making us queasy or as something whose macro-consequences we worry about. This is done by means of a clever line that references Amartya Sen’s classic essay “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”:

The tragedy of the world’s 160 million missing girls isn’t that they’re “missing.” The tragedy is that they’re dead.

This seems like an issue we can shed some light on with a not-very-outlandish thought experiment. According to both secular liberals and religious conservatives, a human spermatozoon is not a moral person entitled to our protection. To kill one is perfectly acceptable. And yet male fetuses and female fetuses (and ultimately male children and female children) are distinguished from each other according to whether or not their spermatozoon “father” carries an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. In principle, it’s not difficult to imagine scientists developing some kind of medication that a man could take that would specifically target one or the other kind. Take the “girl” pill and you become incapable of fathering male children. Take the “boy” pill and you become incapable of fathering female children.

On joint Douthatian and Yglesian principles, nobody’s being killed here. But I think that if we found out that use of the “boy” pill was extremely widespread, this might still legitimately worry us for three kinds of reasons. One is that widespread use of the boy pill would express the inegalitarian idea that men are more valuable than women. A second is that widespread use of the boy pill would reflect the existence of ongoing inequities in society that make it the case that a male child is more valuable than a female child. The third is that there are plausible reasons to believe that even a relatively small gender gap in the population could have problematic macro-scale consequences for society.


As it happens, sex-selective medical intervention overwhelmingly takes the form of abortions. But there are plenty of reasons you might be concerned about the phenomenon that don’t have to do with abortion specifically. You can imagine other forms of medical intervention. Or consider Lady Jessica and the Bene Gesserit who, allegedly, are able to control the sex of their babies solely through mental will.