Ban on sex-selection abortions? Change attitudes toward girls instead.

A GOP bill up for a vote in the House would ban sex-selective abortions, most of which abort females. Such laws are far less effective than changing public thinking about the value of girls and women to families and society.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuter/File
School children in Pakistan sing the national anthem. Girls in Pakistan are often less preferred than boys by parents.

The House GOP plans a vote today on a bill that would penalize health-care providers who perform abortions simply because a parent dislikes the sex of the expected child. Too often in such procedures, it is a female fetus that ends up being aborted.

The legislation, however, appears to be only the latest political move in the “war on women” theme of the 2012 election campaign. It is not a serious attempt to address the issue of sex-selective abortions.

While the practice is not yet widespread in the United States, it has been for decades in countries like China and India that now have highly skewed ratios of males to females, causing numerous social problems.

The bill, called the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, is not expected to pass. Rather it seems designed simply to put House Democrats on the record in voting against a measure that appears to be pro-girl but is mainly another point-scoring skirmish in the nation’s heated abortion wars.

Four states – Arizona, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania – now ban abortions performed because of sex selection. But such laws are not the best way to persuade would-be parents against methods that can ensure the sex of a baby. In fact, parents may lie about their intention or the practice may simply be pushed underground.

Abortion is the most common method used for sex selection; but new techniques, such as altering embryos, are making gender selection easier and more common. A serious debate on the issue is needed as 4 in 10 Americans find it appropriate to select for sex using the latest pregnancy technologies.

The US can learn from other countries where such laws have been less effective than a change in public attitudes about gender roles and the relative worth of boys and girls. In South Korea, for example, a “Love Your Daughter” media campaign has helped change parental thinking about a long-held preference for sons.

Parents should not be putting mental limits on what a son or daughter can become simply because of gender. This requires seeing children as far more capable than the limits placed on them by society or biology. Sex selection treats children simply as commodities.

In poorer countries where women often have lesser social status and fewer legal rights, laws are needed to ensure equality of opportunity. Such laws can help end the kind of antigirl bias reflected in one Indian proverb that says raising a daughter is as pointless as “watering the neighbor’s garden.”

In many countries, a strong preference for sons often dissipates as girls are increasingly seen as equally able to bring benefits to a family, such as prestige or income for elderly parents. Laws, let alone the politics of abortion, are hardly a way to achieve such an expanded view of every child’s inherent abilities.

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