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Monday, January 16, 2012

Sex Selection and Designer Babies

Sex selection is in the news again, as is the threat and/or promise of designer babies.

One of the characters in my play, The Abortion Monologues, is a woman in her forties who already has three children. She finds herself with an unintended pregnancy. Her husband is unsure that he is willing to start again, and would like to consider abortion. She cannot even say the word. He suggests she have amniocentesis because if the baby is "abnormal" it will help them make a decision. The monologue continues as follows:

"I said I would never do it because the baby's not perfect. It feels bad to me, like I'm making a decision about this particular child, rejecting it because of some quality it has that I don't want, like I'm shopping or something. How can you say to a child, 'If it weren't for this, (points at nothing in the air)... or this, I'd love you.' I think you take what God gives you. I think if you can love someone, you love them without conditions. What does it matter if they have Down's Syndrome or eleven fingers or they're albino, or whatever. If you see what I mean. Better to do it without knowing. You either want a child or not. It can't have anything to do with who it will be, or how it will be."

This woman knows what she believes. Many would disagree with her. They would argue that there is  a place for testing. There is something to be said for knowing ahead of time if a child will have needs outside of what one expects, for having the time to plan, for getting one's head around it. I don't judge people who decide to terminate because anomalies are found. I understand that plenty of people feel overwhelmed by the possibility of additional care requirements and costs. They don't know if they're up for it, if their relationships can withstand it, if they can afford it. Maybe they have other children and looking after the additional needs of this one will detract too much from the others. And these parents can in no way depend on the social safety net anymore to help them. I get it.

Here's an analogy. At one point in my life, I was a teacher. I was not a special education teacher. I didn't have it in me. In fact, it didn't even cross my mind to specialize in that area and no one tried to force me to do so. It takes another kind of person than me to do this well. I've seen plenty of people do it well. I admire them and I'm grateful they do such wonderful work. Although I never personally taught special education, I feel good about my taxes supporting it. I never complain about it. In fact, I often think we pay too little in taxes, but know I am probably alone in that. I want to contribute to the lives of others, to help pay for their public education, their health care, and all other things they need. It's one way I can prove I actually care about others and can contribute to what I often lazily refer to as "the grand project," that is, the project of living together on the blue ball. And I know that excellent special education services move us towards a world in which all children's needs are met. This can only be good.

I've thought a great deal about what my character said in the years since I wrote her monologue. I have decided that although I see the other side, I like her, that she has a sense of what is ethical for her and she has thought it through. I know she will do what is right for her.

Another character in the play is about to have an abortion because she has learned she will have a girl. Being a girl is not an anomaly in the minds of people not mired in sexism and gender discrimination. From a human rights perspective, the idea of sex selection is abhorrent, but then again, the idea of selecting on the basis of ability/disability is abhorrent from this perspective as well. This character, the sex selecter, wants to conform to the wishes of her husband and be good in the eyes of her community. Her husband, her family, and her community want her to produce a boy. She knows what it is like to be a girl in her family and in her husband's family, and she knows this better than I do.

As a feminist, I have many concerns about aborting fetuses because they will one day emerge as a girl. I'm sad she feels she can't have this girl. But I can't make that call for her.  I know that, again, much of the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy depends on the support one has within the community.Yes, in a perfect world, girls would be as welcome as boys in all corners of it. In our imperfect world, they are not.

When making decisions about a pregnancy, we have to understand our lives as they are, not as we wish they were. It is a lucky woman who finds these two worlds have converged. For the rest of us, tough choices must be made.

The article about sex selection that I've linked to above talks about removing the option of aborting for reasons of sex selection from women by not letting them have the test until it is too late. Although I understand why this suggestion is being made, I find the suggestion terrible. We cannot get where we want to be through coercion or enforced ignorance. With all new reproductive and genetic technology, the genie is out of the bottle. We can't pretend it isn't there and it is insulting to women to decide for them or deny them access.

In the world of my dreams, all children are welcome and loved not just by their own mothers and families, but by a wider network of social support. While we strive to acheive that, we cannot blame women for dealing with what is real in their lives at this moment.

What we can do is try, as much as possible, to have open discussions, to explore what is real now and what we want to be real in the future, to understand what the gap is and how to bridge it. What I appreciate most about the journal's suggestion is that it has sparked and will continue to generate intense discussion on a critical issue. Individual choices are socially constructed. To focus wholly on one side of this without considering the other is a mistake. What seems like my choice as an individual is a choice made within a society that limits what is offered to me and tends to point me in a specific direction by making that direction seem more appealing or giving more social resources to it. If we want a world without sex selection, we had better end the inequality women currently face and work on shifting social conditions that favour boys and men. If we want a more inclusive world, we'd better start really believing all people are worthy of respect and human rights.

Denying a woman control over her body and hiding information from her is not a part of the solution; it is part of the problem.

To purchase the play, The Abortion Monologues, go to the website and click on "Purchase the Play."

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