On the one-year anniversary of the changes to New Zealand’s abortion legislation, Rachel Simon-Kumar and Janine Paynter look at sex selective abortion’s anomaly in this country

A year ago this week, the New Zealand Parliament voted in favour of radical reforms to the Abortion Legislation Act. The amendments were aimed at modernising the legislation, and moving abortion out from under the Crimes Act of 1961 and the Contraceptive, Sterilisation Act of 1977.

One of the more fiercely debated points in the Bill related to ‘sex-selective abortion’ or the termination of female foetuses. Opposition to abortion on grounds of sex selection was bipartisan. Chair of the Abortion Legislation Select Committee, Labour’s Ruth Dyson, who voted for the changes, pointed out during third reading of the Bill: “We expressed opposition to any abortion for the purpose of sex selection.” Simeon Brown of the National Party, who voted against the reform in his speech, noted (erroneously, it is worth adding) that “it is shocking that this law allows for discrimination against unborn baby girls purely on the basis of their sex under the guise of a woman’s right to choose. Who will defend the rights of these unborn girls?”

In the end, the reform Bill addressed the issue of sex selection in Section 20 F of the amendment: “This Parliament opposes the performance of abortions being sought solely because of a preference for the foetus to be of a particular sex.” The legislation also stipulates that the Director-General of Health should appraise the effects of the law change on sex selection in five years.

Although not explicitly mentioned, the concern with sex-selective abortion is a direct reference to New Zealand’s ethnic minority community, especially those from Asia. In denouncing sex selective abortion, Ruth Dyson emphasised: “That (sex selection) is not part of New Zealand culture, and we never want it to be”.

In some ways, she is right. Sex selection is widely considered an ‘Asian’ problem. Since the 1980s, researchers have highlighted that sex ratios at birth, or the numbers of boys born compared to girls, in India and China consistently fell below expected normal levels. The expected normal would be an equal split but instead for every 1000 boys born, there would be 990 or 980 fewer or less in some regions. Scaled to populations of a billion or more, these shortfalls of girls amounted to millions of girls. These are Asia’s “missing women”, a reflection of society’s preference for males and undervaluation of girls.

The development of ultra-sound technology in the 1980s was an important turning point. Until then, unwanted girl children were disposed of after birth (female foeticide) but with in-utero sex identification, abortion became the preferred method of sex selection.

Sex selection is constructed as a poverty issue – the spotlight was on the poor who could not bear the social and financial burdens of a daughter and therefore preferred abortion to the birth of a girl child. It is now well established that son preference and sex selection cuts across class, occupation, religion, and urban-rural distinctions.

For a long time, sex selection was assumed to be an Asian problem in Asia. Recent research shows that the practice appears to have migrated with Asians to the UK, Canada, USA, Australia, and Europe. Although not on the scale seen in Asia, male-favouring sex ratios have been noted in some Asian minority communities from the 1970s onwards. Sex selection appeared to be practised among first-generation, educated, economically established, urban Asian migrants. In one Canadian study, sex selective practices were also found among second generation migrants. What is clear is that son preference is a strong and enduring sentiment.

In 2019, we were funded by the Health Research Council to undertake research into the possible prevalence of sex-selective abortions in New Zealand. We focused on sex ratios in Asian communities over a 40-year period, starting from the 1970s, using historical Census data. Additionally, we also analysed births among Asians from the Department of Internal Affairs’ birth cohorts register. None of our analyses found atypical sex ratios among the Asian and ethnic minority communities in New Zealand. A preprint of our paper can be found here.

Our findings are consistent with the advice provided by the Abortion Supervisory Committee at the time of the legislative change. On the face of it, there is no evidence of sex-selective abortion practised by Asian communities in New Zealand and, in this regard, we are clearly an anomaly when compared to other migrant-receiving countries.

What lies behind this picture of the ‘New Zealand anomaly’?

The facts are not certain yet but there are possibilities to consider. One is New Zealand’s stringent pregnancy termination regimen of the past decades. Aside from layers of official deterrents to terminate pregnancy, legally, practitioners are not supposed to reveal the sex of the baby during the mandatory ultrasound.

But this alone might not be the reason because we might have still seen abnormal sex ratios if Asian couples decided to travel overseas to undertake abortions. But that has not shown up in our findings.

It is also entirely possible that acculturation may have changed how communities’ value their sons and daughters. Children – regardless of their sex – are known to help new migrant families navigate their way as they settle into a new host country. They are often the future pathway through which they progress economically and socially.

In the end, the framing of sex-selection as a cultural problem that is ‘not New Zealand’ is a reductive attitude. Instead, what might more useful is to empower girl children from ethnic communities through educational and employment opportunities and raise their aspirations to aim high and achieve higher.

These productive approaches – rather than blame – might be the best way forward to end gender inequality in minority communities.

Certainly that, more than anything else, would make New Zealand an anomaly.

Dr Rachel Simon-Kumar is an associate professor in the School of Population Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland.

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