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Are sex selective abortions immoral? In countries where abortion is legal on demand, does it make any sense to try and prevent sex selective abortion if the legal system allows abortion for any reason?

July 18, 2013

Response from Stephen Maitzen on July 18, 2013

You've asked two independent questions: (1) Are sex-selective abortions immoral? (2) Does it make sense to try preventing sex-selective abortions where abortion is generally legal? Now, 'make sense' in (2) can be construed at least two ways: (2a) Is it a practical policy to try preventing sex-selective abortions where abortion is generally legal? (2b) Is it morally consistent to try preventing sex-selective abortions where abortion is generally legal? Question (2a) is a largely empirical question having to do with how effective such a policy would be versus the practical costs of enforcing it. Question (2b) is a philosophical question. One could consistently give different answers to (2a) and (2b).

As for (2b), I think that any legal system that regards abortion as lawful is committed to regarding abortion as not seriously immoral, because I take it to be one of the law's essential functions to outlaw seriously immoral things if there are any. But I also think that if abortion (as such) is immoral, then abortion is seriously immoral: I can't see how abortion could be immoral but only non-seriously immoral. So I conclude that any legal system that regards abortion as lawful is committed to regarding abortion as not immoral at all -- i.e., as a morally neutral medical procedure.

But if abortion is a morally neutral medical procedure, I wonder about the moral consistency of regarding sex-selective abortion as immoral. One might say that (3) sex-selective abortion expresses or reflects contempt for a particular biological sex, but (3) is a basis for questioning only sex-selective abortion of that particular sex rather than questioning sex-selective abortion as such. Furthermore, if the legal system then outlaws sex-selective abortions of one particular sex only, it might thereby express or reflect contempt for the other sex! One might say that (4) sex-selective abortion, as such, reflects a mindset that places too high a priority on someone's biological sex at birth. But (4) seems weak as a basis for regarding sex-selective abortion as immoral in any legal system that regards abortion per se as morally neutral. I'm not sure if (3) is any better as a basis for regarding sex-selective abortion as immoral where abortion is otherwise legal.


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