Explainer: Responding to abortion and sex selection claims

Explainer: Responding to abortion and sex selection claims

Where implemented, bans on sex-selective abortions inhibit women’s timely access to healthcare. Such a ban in NSW would undermine women’s health and autonomy, while doing nothing about the societal attitudes and structures that see women discriminated against in many facets of their lives.[i]

There is no evidence globally that decriminalising abortion would lead to sex-selective abortions

  • The reality is that sex-selection bans are a well-known tactic of opponents of abortion to limit women’s access to abortion.[ii]

In countries where bans on sex-selective abortion exist, they hurt women

  • WHO and UN agencies have found that imposing restrictions on access to health services, like abortion, for sex-selective reasons is more likely to have harmful impacts on women and “may put their health and lives in jeopardy”.[iii]

  • Bans on healthcare place the burden of discrimination against women onto individual women and their doctors, with considerable risk of harm to those women who are denied access to healthcare.

  • Bans on abortions for particular reasons, such as sex selection, compromise the doctor-patient relationship by putting the doctor in the position of policing their patients and second-guessing a woman’s decision-making.[iv] 

  • If women fear being treated with suspicion by their doctors, they may withhold information vital to their healthcare or be pushed towards clandestine options, such as online suppliers of abortion medications.

  • A ban is likely to result in the marginalisation and racial profiling of some women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.[v]

  • A ban could discourage women carrying sex-linked genetic conditions from having honest, confidential conversations with their doctors.

  • Research also shows that sex selective abortion bans don’t impact on sex ratios at birth.[vi]

If there was a male-bias sex-selection problem in NSW, we would need to look at the real causes

  • We know from experts at the World Health Organisation and United Nations that in parts of the world where this is a problem, the drivers are deeply entrenched social, economic, cultural and political factors that see women discriminated against in all facets of their lives.[vii]

  • Sex selection technologies have not caused male-biased sex selection.[viii]

  • The problem is not abortion laws but systemic discrimination against women.

All the experts agree, that social and economic policy responses are needed to tackle gender discrimination in all its forms

  • This is consistent with the conclusions of the much-cited La Trobe study (see below).

  • If governments want to tackle the harms caused by gender discrimination, they could:

    • increase funding for services working with women escaping family violence

    • measures to address the under-representation of women in positions of power

    • policies that better value the huge amount of unpaid care work women perform.

The La Trobe study

  • The 2018 La Trobe University study cited in the Legislative Assembly found that, from over 1 million births in Victoria, the overall ratio of boys to girls was appropriate. While it identified higher numbers of boys born to some mothers from a handful of countries, it could not draw conclusions about specific contributing factors, noting:

“we were not able to assess the influence of time since immigration, the number and sex of previous siblings, partner’s country of birth, second or subsequent generation migration, or other socioeconomic factors including education. It is important to note also that we are unable to draw conclusions about the individual contribution of assisted reproduction versus pregnancy termination to our findings.”[ix]

  • The study did not suggest that there was any evidence that doctors were allowing sex selective abortion to happen in Victoria.

  • The study made no recommendations about abortion. It instead emphasised the importance of social, cultural and economic policy responses “to tackle gender discrimination in all its forms”. [x]


[i] See eg Bela Ganatra, ‘Maintaining Access to Safe Abortion and Reducing Sex Ratio Imbalances in Asia’, 16 (31) (2008) Supp Reproductive Health Matters 90.

[ii] See eg Brian Citro et al, ‘Replacing Myths with Facts: Sex Selective Abortion Law in the United States’ (Cornell Law Faculty Publications, Paper 1399, 2014); Sneha Barot, ‘A Problem-and-solution Mismatch: Son Preference and Sex-selective Abortion Bans’ 15(2) (2012) Guttmacher Policy Review.

[iii] World Health Organisations, Preventing Gender-biased Sex Selection: An interagency statement OHCR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO (2011).

[iv] Danielle McMullen, ‘Gender selection has nothing to do with decriminalising abortion: AMA’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August 2019).

[v] This is evident from the debate on this topic in the NSW Legislative Assembly on 8 August 2019.

[vi] Brian Citro et al, ‘Replacing Myths with Facts: Sex Selective Abortion Law in the United States (Cornell Law Faculty Publications, Paper 1399, 2014).

[vii]  World Health Organisations, Preventing Gender-biased Sex Selection: An interagency statement OHCR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO (2011).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Kristina Edvardsson et al, ‘Male-biased Sex Ratios in Australian Migrant Populations: A Population-Based Study of 1191250 Births 1999-2015’ (2018) 1(13) International Journal of Epidemiology 12.

[x] Ibid.