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OTI Online
Summer 1991

Is Being Female a Birth Defect?
by Merle Hoffman


Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s was a special kind of wasteland. a time when one's worth and acceptance as a female was measured by the width of a hooped crinoline skirt, when "soul" kissing branded you a sexual outlaw and when little girls' dreams had well defined limits and barriers. It was a vast wilderness of traditional female totems -of mothers, teachers and friends encircling me and creating a suffocating loneliness that! could not name or understand. The silence was finally broken when I found HER.

Having discovered her when I was 11, my obsession with Queen Elizabeth I was the first real love affair of my life. Having no female role models whom I could relate to, I immediately realized that here was a woman with qualities I wanted -brilliance, power, courtiers who worshipped her, the ability to influence the world as she knew it, the grudging respect of her mortal enemies (even the Pope who excommunicated her praised her political skill), access to the most profound thinkers and creative geniuses of her time, and a great battle to fight and to win (the Spanish Armada).

She ruled 16th century England by herself, refusing to marry or to bear children, unheard of for a female monarch of her time, preferring, in her words, to be both "King and Queen" of her country. She spoke five languages, was a virgin by most relevant accounts, including her own, and put her name to an entire historical period.

Wearing shining Amazonian armour, she also made eloquent and profoundly moving battle speeches to her troops while astride a wonderful white stallion. Elizabeth was a woman with traditional "masculine" courage -indeed much greater than ordinary men. In a famous speech to her troops at Tilbury in 1588 during the approach of the Armada, she rang out: "I know that I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too".

She was indeed a mystical creature, powerful beyond anyone I could imagine, and a survivor.

Born to be third in line for the throne behind her brother Edward VI and sister Mary I, Elizabeth was forced to navigate the perilous channels of Tudor power politics and spend nearly four years in the Tower of London where she came very close to losing her head. Her mother had not been so fortunate. Anne Boleyn (called the Great Witch and Whore by her enemies) was Henry VIII's second wife and, by all accounts, beautiful, brilliant and ambitious, but fated to move inexorably towards the headsman's ax because she did not have the control over her body to enable her to give the King what he wanted most -a male heir.

Four hundred years too early for amniocentesis, Anne had the misfortune to miscarry two male children. Elizabeth, her first live birth, was tolerated because she proved Anne's worth as a producer.

Even in my adolescence I formed a rather psychoanalytic view of Elizabeth's virginity. It was obvious to me that -at the age of three -having one's mother beheaded because of reproductive failures could certainly turn one off to sexual intimacy. The connection must have been very powerful and very early - -sex=death.

As the years passed and I matured, my relationship with Elizabeth changed to reflect my seasoned political and feminist analysis of power and gender politics in the 16th century. Losing some of her romantic mantle, I came to understand that Elizabeth also was a prisoner of a kind and paid prices for her power and achievements that were beyond my imagining. But she always retained a special place in my heart -this unique Amazon Queen who I was sure would astound and challenge generations far beyond mine.

Interestingly enough, she continues to appear in my life at odd places -spaces that I would never expect her to inhabit. I was reminded of Elizabeth and her other recently at Choices when an Indian Hindu woman, 18 weeks pregnant, came in with her husband and two young sons seeking an abortion. Having had the benefit of modern technology, she had had amniocentesis to insure that there were no fetal abnormalities. She was 37 years old and both she and her husband were concerned about having a normal, healthy child. She was happy to report the tests proved negative -there was absolutely nothing wrong with her fetus. Why then was she here -what was her reason for wanting this abortion? "Oh," she said in a manner and with a gesture that implied the question was patently unnecessary, "I don't want a girl -and that is what I was told it was -a girl. Girls are liabilities."

My mind flew to China, to reports of waves and waves of unwanted girl children left alone and unwanted on the doorsteps of orphanages. The communist government appeared unsuccessful in eradicating sex role attitudes and preferences in the majority of the peasantry.

Most families still want boys, and girls are viewed as handicaps simply because they are girls. The intensified family planning policy in China during the last decade was a strong impetus for families to abandon and kill infant girl children in favor of boys. If a family was to have only one child, it was obviously more beneficial for them to have a male.

"Many families still have a feudalistic attitude of favoring men," said Li Dingkun, deputy director of the Hunan Province Civil Affairs Department. "We must change the old ways of thinking. We must get rid of this custom of the woman's being married off to the man and becoming part of his household. If two people get married, it shouldn't matter which side of the family they go off to live with." (NY Times, Feb. 26, 1991)

China is not the only country where being male almost guarantees survival and growth. The U.S. also appears to have attitudes that favor male children over females. Technological advances which allow amniocentesis, as well as other less invasive and safer tests done earlier in pregnancy, and societal preferences for boy children, result in some families having sex selection abortions.

There was a time not very long ago when one of the more pleasurable and exciting aspects of being pregnant was the mysterious and the unknown -the surprise of finding out whether the baby was a boy or a girl. But with the advent of amniocentesis, individuals or a couple may now choose to abandon the unknown forever.

According to Jane Brody, writing in the NY Times, "Beliefs spawned by biological ignorance held women responsible for the sex of a couple's offspring, and, in some cultures, wives were -and in a few cases still are -abandoned if they fail to produce a male heir."

These attitudes and firmly held beliefs are still with us. "The pressure to have a child of a particular sex can become especially intense if a couple has already produced several children of the opposite sex, and with the current desire for smaller natural families, couples are less likely to want to keep on having children until they get the child they want," writes Brody.

According to experts convened by the National Institutes of Health and the Hastings on Hudson research center, there was strong advice against the use of prenatal diagnosis for sex selection. These experts are worried about such social and psychological consequences as the fact that "prospective parents, both men and women, admit to a distinct preference for boys." Thus sex selection is likely to skew the sex ratio towards boys. Even those parents who want one child of each sex often prefer to have the boy first, and "since studies of first born children have shown that they tend to be more aggressive and achievement oriented, this could further undermine the status of women."

The argument that "the status of women" would be undermined by breeding more aggressive first born males reinforces the Freudian scripture of biology as destiny and is a political cop out. Indeed, the "status of women" in this society is a multi determined reality that cannot be subsumed under anxieties of genetic gender engineering. However, in a deeper sense, sex selection abortions may be viewed as the apotheosis of a liberal pro-choice philosophy which focuses on bringing children into the world who are wanted, loved and provided with the entire range of material and social benefits that enable them to be "successful" and, for many, being male is a sina qua non of success.

Indeed, because most pre-natal testing is performed for the purposes of genetic; screening -sex determination becomes a by product for some and a secondary gain for others. With more and more women delaying childbirth until their late 30s and 40s, amniocentesis is recommended by most gynecologists and sometimes required by certain pre-paid health insurers for any pregnant woman over the age of 35. As a result, more and more women will potentially have the option of sex selection abortion.

In societies such as China where one's very survival as an individual woman, and as a member of a kinship group, is determined by one's children and their relationships in marriage, all financial, political and social forces drive the decision to produce male children rather than female. Having females, as well as being one, is definitely a liability.

However, in the U.S., where the status of women is not determined by the needs of an agrarian peasant culture but partly by the economic forces of an advanced capitalist society, along with the supposed give and take of constituency influenced democratic politics, the need or desire for sex selection abortions should be minimal if not non-existent. When it does occur, sex selection abortions (which can be read as male selection) very often are rationalized as being financially, sociologically and politically necessary. The economic and social pressures that impact on Chinese women may be far more severe and glaring than those impacting their American sisters, yet the occurrence of sex selection abortions within the American system may point to a survival decision of a different sort -one where issues of success, status or social acceptance define and drive reproductive choices. Imbued by a philosophical and political belief system that denies the mystery of procreation and refuses to accept the limitations of biology, reproductive technology becomes a natural ally for potential parents. It allows them to make what is, in a sense, the ultimate in supposedly informed consumerism, and creates a world where being female is viewed as the primary and most terminal of birth defects.

For opponents of abortion, assuming technological control over women's reproductive nature and God's will is the ultimate arrogance. However, within the pro-choice framework, this control is viewed as the cornerstone of reproductive freedom and, for radical feminists, it is the underpinning of women's full autonomy and liberation. For feminists, the realm of the female body through which the patriarch wields its power in terms of rape, abuse, inequity and injustice must, first and foremost, be under the control of the woman who inhabits it. The slogans so often chanted and painted on demonstration placards attest to this: Our bodies/Our lives. A woman's life is a human life. Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate.

Yet each week at Choices there is the request from a patient for information on a six -or seven week fetus, on whether it is a boy or girl. Is it a boy, they ask tentatively? Because if it is, I might want to keep it -or, he would want me to keep it.

This week it was the Hindu woman who reminded me of Elizabeth and her mother. "Girls are liabilities," she said. "It is a burden for the mother and she has to care for her daughter and the grandchildren of her daughter, which takes time away from her husband." According to the Times (UK), the practice of determining the sex of an unborn child in India is so widespread and so profitable that it is beginning to make a discernible impact on the population. The norm in most countries is a ratio of men to women which usually favors women or is close to being equal. However, in India, by the late 1980s the ratio was 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. Genetic tests to determine fetal sex are used by a vast number of pregnant Indian women who are desperate to have only sons. Many girls who manage to survive till birth are chronically malnourished, particularly in rural areas where the birth of a daughter is greeted with despair.

"Girls are a liability because they never bring home good wages, they require a dowry when they marry, they do not carry on the family name, and they are unable to care properly for aged parents because they live with their in laws." Times (UK)

And in a report prepared for the government of India to mark South Asia's Year of the Girl Child 1990, the study reported that although girls are born biologically stronger, 300,000 more of them die each year than boys -if they are born at all. "If girl children do survive, UNICEF has found "that a quarter of the 12 million girls born in India die by age 15, many of them victims of neglect, discrimination and sometimes infanticide because of their gender." (NY Times, October5, 1990)

As I spoke with the woman, I thought of the fetus within her and the primal birth defect it carried. I also looked at her two little sons, holding on to her with unyielding, demanding hands. Was the empire bereft of an heir? Are the two little men beside her insufficient?

The sound of crashing throbbed between my temples. It was the sound of multiple images, associations and ideologies tumbling headlong into each other. The sounds of rage and despair. As if it were me she would be negating. Rage that it was my gender that was the least wanted -and despair over the reality that within this act was a total denigration, denial and devaluation of the female principal, the female self.

Her choice, so much determined by her cultural conditioning, replanted within an American system allied with a technology that allowed it to flourish, gave her an ambiguous power. Her choice was to be free to make the decision to abort her fetus merely because it was female. The reasons that led her to make what in her mind and in much of her culture's attitude was the only rational and intelligent choice, resulted in an ambivalent type of freedom. A freedom that says that in order for a woman to be "free" or to have more than a minimal chance at survival she must deny and negate her own sex. It is an extraordinarily Kafkaesque resolution to the dilemma of autonomywherein women must destroy the woman within to have more of a chance at survival.

The reality of the universal negation of female value has given rise to many creative flights of fantasy among feminists of the second wave who have written of worlds without men, worlds where there is no need for reproduction, where feminist values of collectivity, peace, self reliance, self respect and compassion for all the earth's creatures become natural ways of being. Worlds in which being female is not a liability and where fear of female power in men has not produced the enormous social, psychological defense of overcompensation known as the patriarchy. Patriarchy, an institutionalized social reality where violence, war, rape, abuse, art, culture and pornography define the parameters of existence.

However, in a deeper sense, sex selection abortions could very well be considered pornographic -having violent misogyny at its core. If pornography is the male will to power over the female -and by its very nature requires more and more violent expression to excite its aficionados, then selecting female fetuses for termination merely because they are female could be the prototype of all pornography -pre natal pornography."

But feminist revenge or utopian fantasies aside, how can one woman judge another's choice? How can feminists who struggle against the oppression and biological and sexual orthodoxy of the patriarchy have their own -no matter how seemingly moral? How in fact, can I judge this woman's choice?

I, who have spent more than half my life in the service of a movement where the concept of legal abortion on demand is a primary political truth. I, whose entire philosophical and political agenda is committed to insuring that this woman as well as any other is able to make her choice (whatever my opinion of it), in safety, comfort, love and legality.

It is for this woman and for all others that I dedicated my life. It is to support her choices that I make mine. It is for the principal of the fundamental civil right of reproductive freedom that I have put my life on the line many times. And it is for a visionary feminism that I struggle to create a society, a "newer" world order, where being female will not be considered a birth defect.

There is politics, then there is love, then there is ambivalence. There is an exercise that is done by practitioners for those who counsel women seeking abortions. It is called "the last abortion" and asks the participant to choose among six women the one who will be allowed to receive the last abortion on earth. It is an exercise in individual ethics and forces one to confront her own prejudices. There is an orphaned teenager, a victim of rape, a woman carrying a medically deformed fetus, a 46 year old woman with HIV, a 12 year old, and a graduate student who wants to finish her Ph.D. They all have good reasons, because all the reasons are theirs. And in the end, that is the answer: All the reasons are theirs. If I had the last abortion on earth to give? I might very well decide to give it to the woman who in such a strange way made me think of all the reasons not to.


Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.


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