Why the anti-abortion movement is embracing gender equality

Pro-life activists are taking aim at sex-selective abortions—but that’s merely a Trojan horse, to help them curtail access to abortion services in Canada

A young girl participates in the March For Life on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

A young girl participates in the March For Life on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In 2014, there were 81,897 abortions performed in hospitals and clinics in Canada. This statistic, from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, is encouraging. The number of abortions performed in 2014 is a full 22 per cent lower than in 2002, while the population has increased by 13 per cent during the same period.

You’d think the pro-life camp would be rejoicing. After all, far fewer women terminate their pregnancies today than as recently as 12 years ago. Strangely, though, there is little mention of the good news on any of the main pro-life websites in the country. A browse of, say, Campaign Life Coalition’s website reveals the familiar doomsday-esque reverie of torqued statistics—“Since it’s [sic] legalization in 1969, 4 million Canadian have died from elective abortions”—and a parade of blood and gore abortion pictures. Times have changed; anti-abortion tactics have not.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Over the last few years, Canada’s anti-abortion movement has grafted a new face onto its stock and trade hyperbole. It is a friendlier face, to be sure, one which seeks less to antagonize women than use them as a proxy in its continuing public relations campaign to curtail access to abortion services in Canada. And the movement has recently found a reliable bogeyman: sex-selective abortions.

The practice of aborting a fetus based on its sex is an all-too-common practice in several countries, most notably China and India. In the latter, while not rampant, sex-selective abortions are such a concern that the government enacted a law prohibiting them in 1994. The reasons behind sex-selective abortions are, frankly, indefensibly chauvinistic. Female babies are often viewed as less desirable than males, as chattel sometimes subject to a dowry. In India, the problem is even more insidious because sex-selective abortions are more common amongst the moneyed and educated classes, according to a 2010 Indian government study.

The practice of sex-selective abortions has crept into Canada. A recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests that amongst certain Indian immigrants­, “prior induced abortion is associated with subsequently giving birth to a boy, especially at the third birth and among women who had given birth to two previous girls.” The data shows the practice has skewed the male-female ratio within segments of the Indo-Canadian community, and suggests women undergoing sex-selective abortions are more likely to have multiple abortions, which “have shown to be detrimental to a woman’s health and also to a subsequent pregnancy.”

In short, the backward practice of sex-selective abortion is potentially damaging to women in particular and society as a whole. And the anti-abortion movement has pounced. “This is quite appalling,” Campaign Life Coalition president Jim Hughes told The Catholic Register. “It travelled from their country of origins to here. They [have to] wake up and realize that there is equality here.”

This rhetorical slight of hand—framing sex-selective abortions as a gender, not reproductive rights, issue—is no accident. In Canada, harping on the issue of abortion has long been a political non-starter. Public opinion polling on the subject is notoriously unreliable; support for abortion waxes and wanes depending on the wording of the question. Yet on the issue of reopening the abortion debate, the polling data is generally clear: Canadians do not want it.

No pro-choice type himself, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was at least pragmatic enough to stamp out any anti-abortion rumblings emanating from the socially conservative recesses of his party.

But gender equality is another story entirely. While we may be a cautious bunch on the issue of abortion, we Canadians are wildly, flamingly liberal on equality of sexes—94 per cent in favour of it, according to but one recent poll.

Pro-life types have cannily glommed onto sex-selective abortion as a means to demonstrate the evils of the pro-choice narrative run amok. They’ve rebranded the practice “gendercide,” and one politician amongst the ranks has attempted (unsuccessfully) to introduce a motion condemning it. They’ve appointed more female spokespeople. Twenty years ago, women who received abortions were murderers. Today, they are more likely to be victims.

It’s part of what University of Ottawa researchers Kelly Gordon and James Saurette call the “pro-woman” rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement. “Anti-abortionists have been losing since 1969 [when the Canadian government liberalized abortion laws],” Gordon told me recently. “They’ve been viewed as being very anti-woman. This is a strategic shift. Concentrating on sex-selective abortions is a far more sympathetic discourse.”

Enacting a law against sex-selective abortion would be folly. In India, a country of 1.2 billion, there were all of 20 convictions between 1994 and 2010, according to the government report. But then, preventing sex-selective abortions isn’t the goal of pro-lifers in this country; prohibiting abortion outright is. Gender equality is just a useful vehicle to this end.

A useful vehicle, and a Trojan horse. Restricting reproductive rights would be far easier with an existing law banning what amounts to an aberration of the practice. By draping itself in the flag of gender equality, the anti-abortion movement is rehashing a debate it lost long ago. It’s a savvy and cynical move, and should be recognized as such.

Ultimately, of course, the way to curb sex-selective abortions is roughly the same as curbing the frequency of abortions in general—not through legislation, but education. This country’s long-diminishing abortion rate is the best testament to this fact.


Why the anti-abortion movement is embracing gender equality

  1. Why this waffling all of a sudden? If a mother wants to terminate the life of her fetus because it’s female, that’s her prerogative, isn’t it?

    • How do we know it doesn’t happen the other way around (girls are the preferred choice) in other pocket of our society? I think ultimately it will balance itself out. Look at China, where men have a shortage of brides – due to the gender selection choices of their parent’s generation. Suddenly women are the preferred gender!

      There’s a Ying for every Yang.

  2. Simple solution: Make it illegal to reveal the sex of the fetus. If you don’t know the sex, it eliminates it as a reason for aborting.

    • So the woman in her patriarchal society can be beaten and the female child will be treated like dirt.

      Great idea!

    • You can never do that. There are all sorts of private clinics offering ultrasounds.

      We have the right to abortion here.

  3. This is a conundrum for the feminists. They want all abortions, all the time…and we have to pay for it.
    But when it is clear that females are less valued by some in our multicultural society, they can’t really come to the defence of female unborn babies can they. to do so, would be to admit the humanity of the fetus.

    Personally, I think I share the view of the majority. Pro-choice; but also very thankful that I will never be in the position to have to make such a tough decision.

    • Not a conundrum at all. I’m a feminist and understand that cultures value men more than women. I don’t particularly like it, but that needs to change before removing a woman’s safe abortion access. She will abort either way, knowing she might be beaten or abandoned for having a female.

      It’s really quite simple. The fake outrage about sex selective abortions from both sides obviously don’t see the whole picture.

      This is a good article…


    • I am a feminist. To state that ‘feminists want all abortions all the time” is a foolish and ignorant comment.
      Women have the right to choose whether or not to give birth. I do not expect that it is a decision to take lightly.

      We pay for medical procedures in this country for people who abuse their health.

      I would hope that all children born here are wanted children.

  4. Dear Martin, you are mistaken. Abortion is NOT a Reproductive Rights issue. We all have reproductive rights. We have the right to abstain, we have the right to withdrawn, we have the right to use birth control, we have the right to prevent reproduction. Reproduction rights End when reproduction has occurred. At this point, it has become a human rights issue. My human rights end where another person’s human rights begin. I have the right to swing my hand, but my rights end when my hand affects another person’s face. This is the case of abortion, my rights end when the person within me’s rights begin. Abortion is a human rights issue, not a reproductive rights issue. Science has proven that human life begins at conception. A sperm cannot become a human on its own, and an egg cannot become a human on its own, a human is formed when the two unite. Why does this human not have its rights, because it is younger than us, because it is smaller than us, because it hasn’t learned to speak yet? Should I have more human rights than my 16-year-old son? Should I have more human rights than you because I’m taller than you? Should I have more human rights than a one-year-old because I can speak? No! All humans deserve equal human rights, whether they are small or large, whether they are male or female, whether they are black or white, whether they are Old, middle-aged, adult, teenager, child, toddler, baby, fetus, or embryo. All humans deserve human rights. And we have taken this human right away from the most vulnerable of our species.

    • So, Lily, I’ll ask you this. Who should have more human rights? The woman or the embryo (parasite) inside her? Do you propose giving more rights to a ‘potential human’ over the human herself?

      Sex selective abortions are done within cultures who value men over women. Women get beaten and ostracized for having a female. So you want more women to get beaten? Left by their husbands? You want these women to birth females so they can be abused and treated like dirt?
      Must be so hard to breathe up on that high horse of yours eh? That’s why safe, legal abortions that female strangers have is none of your business.

      I’ll just leave this article here for your enlightenment. Perhaps you might learn something outside of your insane, judgey ideology of proposing forcing childbirth and motherhood on women.

      “He beat me very badly after I had my last girl, I can’t go through that again,” a woman once told me. What exactly were this woman’s options who spoke limited English, had no job and depended on her husband for money. She took a bus to her abortion because she didn’t drive and would have to explain the money for a cab. Do I judge her? Do I with my upper middle class upbringing and the earning potential of a physician say, “Sorry honey, not tragic enough?” And what if she doesn’t get that abortion and is then beaten to death in her third trimester or after she delivers? I’ve seen that, but no one writing about the “evils” or “moral ambiguity” of sex selective abortion mentions maternal abuse or murder.


    • Reproduction has not occurred when a cluster of cells is formed. A fetus is not a person.

      Your other arguments do not hold water. We do not condone infanticide. Every woman has the right to choose whether or not to carry a fetus to term.

      You never have to choose to have an abortion- but you have no right to dictate to someone who does choose this.

      • Every fetus is genetically unique, and there are no genes that you have now, Peg, that you did not possess when you were a 1-celled zygote. Since both of your parents also started out as single cells, at that point we can say that you were technically “reproduced”. Also you should try learning some embryology – a fetus is far too complex to be considered a “cluster of cells”.

        I am glad that you do not condone infanticide. The main difference between a newborn baby and a late term fetus is that one takes in life-sustaining oxygen through the lungs while the other gets it through the umbilical cord. Parturition is fascinating and wonderful, but I don’t think there’s anything magical about it, as per your inference that it somehow transforms a non-entity into an entity.

  5. Martin, you are so judgmental and obviously biased towards the pro-death of pre-born children camp. Real Feminists, liberals and everyone should be outraged that girls are being killed in utero, just because they are a GIRL! It is infuriating that we are paying millions of dollars annually for this elective invasive surgery that takes innocent human lives and often wounds women in the process and aftermath.

    Many studies prove abortion is linked to Breast Cancer due to the hormones and estrogen positive breast cancer. http://www.bcpinstitute.org and it also causes cervical damage resulting in infertility, miscarriages and pre-term births in subsquent “wanted” pregnancies. As well, a huge meta-analysis revealed that 81% of women will suffer some mental issues like depression, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse in the aftermath. As a former abortion, I know exactly what I am talking about, abortion hurt me, and killed my children. It is not a black and white issue, it is blood red!

    • All of your so-called proof of the perils of abortion have been resoundingly disproved. It does not cause breast cancer (how could it?), nor do properly administered abortions cause any damage to the mother’s body- or prevent her from future pregnancies. Most women who choose abortion have a great sense of relief.

      On the other hand; my mother – who was a GP in the early forties, witnessed absolutely horrible mutilations (and deaths) of women who had had ‘back street” abortions.

      Do some reading of clinical stdies on the safety of abortions before you spread misinformation.

      • Peg,
        An induced abortion can have profound effects on a woman’s hormone levels, and there is clearly a relationship (albeit a complex one) between sex hormones and breast cancer. Some epidemiological studies have shown a clear correlation between induced abortion and breast cancer, but others have not. This is hardly what one could call “resounding disproof”, but then it doesn’t look like science and objectivity are your strong suits.

  6. This does not at all reflect the sentiments of so many pro-life women. Being pro-life/anti-abortion/whatever-you-want-to-call-it reflects a genuinely pro-woman sentiment, not some rebranding so that our message can be more tenable. Ours is the novel idea that women ought to be accepted in all their reproductive capacities. Offering surgery so that women will function exactly as men do might rightly be called sexist.

  7. The decrease in the number of abortions reported by Stats Canada does not reflect the reality. If you look carefully, you will see that Quebec reports no abortions to Stats Canada. Given the fact that abortion numbers are highest in the province of Quebec, the statistics nationwide are skewed.
    Therefore to conclude that the number of abortions has actually decreased is a false statement.

    • Julie: I don’t normally wade into the comments, but your contention that Quebec doesn’t report abortions stats is demonstrably false. In fact, Quebec reports induced abortions to the Canadian Institute for Health Information every year. In 2014, 25,083 induced abortions in Quebec.

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