As a result of son-preference cultures where males are prized over females, the practice of abortion disproportionately impacts little girls, who are subject to violence and discrimination before they are even born.
As many as 200 million women and girls are missing worldwide because of practices like sex-selective abortion and women in such cultures may also face forced abortions or other violence and discrimination if they refuse to abort their daughters. Skewed sex ratios have resulted in further harmful consequences for women, such as increased sex trafficking and bride buying.
Speaking at a rally in Queensland earlier this month, Senator Matt Canavan said hearing from a Brisbane IVF doctor inspired him to draft a bill to prevent sex-selective abortions being funded by Medicare in Australia.
Dr David Molloy, clinical director at Queensland Fertility Group said he had seen patients who admitted to having an abortion after the non-invasive prenatal test (NIPT) at 10 weeks revealed the baby was the “wrong sex”.
“That is wrong,” said Senator Canavan. “I’m going to introduce a bill into the Parliament that will say there should be no Medicare funding of sex-selection abortions … because your taxes should not go to other parents trying to choose the gender of their babies.”
Abortion laws recently passed in NSW and South Australia include provisions condemning and, in South Australia, prohibiting sex-selective abortions. These are consistent with the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) longstanding ban on non-medical sex-selection throughout Australia in the context of assisted reproductive technologies.
Abortion advocates claim “there is no evidence sex-selective abortion is a significant issue in Australia”. However, while this area is under-researched, there is certainly enough data and anecdotal evidence to ring alarm bells (given that females bear the brunt of sex-selective practices, turning a blind eye to even a small number of sex-selective abortions is an abysmal failure of women and girls in this country).
Take for example the investigation by SBS that found a higher number of boys than girls being born in certain ethnic communities in Australia or the more recent study from La Trobe University which also indicates that sex-selective practices are taking place amongst some ethnic communities in Victoria.
Then there is the high-profile case of Dr Mark Hobart who refused to perform a sex-selective abortion for a couple in Melbourne, those in Sydney’s Indian community who say sex-selective abortions are happening in NSW, and the Brisbane IVF doctor referred to by Senator Canavan, which shows the practice is also happening in Queensland.
Even if sex-selective abortion isn’t currently an issue in Australia, Indian-Australian entrepreneur Shivani Gopal warns, “we need to avoid creating loopholes [that] may enable these cultural practices to crop up here”. She says the fact is that sex-selective abortions aren’t confined to India or China and there is also evidence of the practice in many other countries, including Canada and the UK. She notes that “[a]lready, Australian parents have been flying to the US for selective IVF procedures that let them choose the gender of their child”.
“As an Indian [woman] with a heritage that’s rich with culture and rituals, as much as it is with the historical baggage of the dowry and the ‘burden of the girl child’; I know all too well why sex-selective abortions can never be allowed,” she says.
“It might seem like it doesn’t need to be said, but we need to actively take a stand against gender-selective abortions. Else, we risk seeing increased sexism, further minimisation of girls, and the stigmatisation of the girl child.”
Abortion advocates maintain that bans on sex selective-abortion impede women’s choice and access to health care, and will result in discrimination and racial profiling of women from particular cultural backgrounds.
Yet the reality is, as with other abhorrent culturally specific practices such as female genital mutilation or child marriage, sex-selective abortions are more prevalent in certain cultures and like those other practices, should not be a legitimate or accessible ‘choice’.
Despite the NHMRC’s ban on sex-selective practices and general community repugnance towards the idea of aborting a child on the basis of his or her sex, “abortion law reform” allowing abortion on request means that sex-selective abortion is now effectively and shamefully legal in most parts of Australia. This “loophole” urgently needs to be addressed so that sex-selective abortion is unequivocally prohibited in this country. But for now, Senator Canavan’s proposed bill to ban Medicare (i.e. taxpayer) funding of this disgraceful practice is at least a step in the right direction.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia