'The three deadliest words in the world: 'It's a girl." Photo: AT Photography. Getty image
In 1985, Mary Anne Warren coined the term gendercide to refer to the ritual eradication of women and girls throughout the world. More recently, the heartbreaking film It's a Girl documents the effects of this practice on the numbers of girls and women in China and India. It makes for difficult viewing, particularly when confronted with the kinds of survivors who have internalised their worthlessness to a point where they see the infanticide of girl children as a reasonable solution to the burden of giving birth to girls.
The United Nations estimates that as many as 200 million women and girls are missing in the world today as a result of being born into societies in which they have no value. The latest figures from China show that in some parts of the country there are as many as 130 boys for every 100 girls, a ratio that has widened rather than narrowed in the past decade. In that same period, it's estimated between 3 million to 6 million girls were aborted in India, despite the fact that sex determination tests have been outlawed there as a response to such a trend. And before you make the mistake of thinking this is due to poverty, think again - the wealthiest classes in both China and India are just as likely if not more so to dispense of their girl children because of the cultural honour of having boys.
By 2020, it's estimated that China will have around 30-40 million more men than women. Known as the 'bare branches syndrome', it describes a phenomenon in which significant proportions of the population will be unable to "bear fruit". Simply put, with no women to marry in a culture that prizes the structure of family (albeit a one-child one in China), what will those millions of men do? There's already evidence of increased trafficking of girls and women through China, while rural areas with even fewer options see wives being shared. To put this problem into a very tiny nutshell, the ritual gendercide of women and girls throughout the world has even more ramifications than the moral implications of devaluing humans according to biological sex. It is real, it's happening and it's a devastating insight into the logical endpoint of patriarchal codes that position women as property and resources rather than human beings.
So what does this have to do with Australia?
Sex-selective abortion has become a baffling hot topic in Australian politics in recent months. In February, Democratic Labor Party senator John Madigan introduced a private members bill that seeks to remove Medicare funding from abortions sought for sex selective reasons.
More recently, a story appeared in the Sunday Herald Sun "blowing the whistle" on sex-selective abortion, with obstetrician Dr Mark Hobart claiming in an exclusive interview that a Melbourne couple had sought a termination from him because they'd discovered their unborn foetus was a girl. The story, splashed across the front page of one of Australia's biggest tabloids, was scant on data and relied heavily on the anecdotal evidence of Hobart, a member of the notoriously anti-choice DLP. Despite these gaping holes, comments left on the Sunday Herald Sun's website bristled with the kind of outrage that pulses with the support of external prejudices such as racism (Hobart had particularly mentioned that the woman's husband had done 'all the talking' - commenters lapped up the not-so-subtle reference to Outlanders and used the opportunity to talk about how "we treat our women differently".)
Although abortion law varies across the states and territories, we face nowhere near the same level of restrictions imposed on women across American jurisdictions. For this reason alone, we probably make the mistake of thinking our rights are sacrosanct and enshrined in law. Perhaps this is the view taken by conservative senators too – John Madigan's curious push to "close a legal loophole" to a practice that's barely identifiable in Australia is the second time in recent years a senator has tried to find a back way into limiting women's reproductive rights. In 2008, Senator Guy Barnett moved a motion to scrap Medicare funding for late term abortions.
The motion ultimately failed, perhaps because policymakers realised what is becoming rapidly clear in the case of Madigan's assault on reproductive healthcare and public funding – the phenomenon of rorting and exploitation undertaken by money-hungry doctors and morally bankrupt parents just doesn't exist.
In 2008, Barnett referred to 10,000 late-term abortions that had taken place over a 13-year period. Given estimates put Australia's abortion rate at around 70-80,000 a year, the late-term abortions targeted by Barnett account for a microscopic percentage.
Similarly, Madigan admits himself that he has no definitive data on sex-selective abortions. All he can muster is the argument that it happens Out There and therefore probably happens in parts of Australia too. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about reproductive healthcare in Australia knows that sex-selective abortion, while possibly not non-existent here, just isn't happening in numbers significant enough to constitute a dribble let alone a tsunami. The revelations made by Dr Mark Hobart in the Herald Sun were rather less whistle-blowing than they were dog-whistling, particularly coming off the back of the news about RU486's probable listing on the PBS.
Unfortunately, empirical evidence relies on substantive data to back it up. If sex-selective abortion were occurring in identifiable numbers in Australia, this would be reflected in a widening gap between girls and boys being born. So far, a gap has failed to present itself.
Gendercide is a real thing, and the evidence of it is brutal and gut wrenching. To exploit it as evidence of a non-existent phenomenon to try to further limit women’s reproductive rights in Australia (the control of which ironically contributes to gendercide in countries in which it occurs) is a revolting tactic. John Madigan and his ilk might not quite be lying about their motivations, but they’re certainly not being entirely honest. If they truly care about the impact of sex selective abortion, they might look at how Australia can help support campaigns like The 50 Million Missing,
or Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. Madigan and co, in the interests of supporting women’s rights and autonomy, might also look at the work of organisations like Marie Stopes International and their support for women’s family planning through access to contraception AND safe abortion.
The ability to plan and structure a manageable family, particularly in the developing world, is vital to improving the health of women and subsequently their families, yet international funding for family planning has been decreasing. As ironic as it may seem, providing women with access to reproductive health care against the backdrop of a society that values them actually saves lives rather than takes them away.
So if Madigan and co were really serious about saving the lives of girls and women, they’d be directing their efforts into combating problems that actually exist. Given they’d rather focus on anecdotal evidence that even they admit can’t be substantiated, I suspect what they’re actually interested in is seeing how far they can drive that wedge in.
Below is the trailer for the documentary It's a Girl. For more information, click here.