The tensions between multiculturalism and feminism in Canada are at an all-time high, with recent events demonstrating it’s time to reopen this debate. These tensions between multiculturalism and feminism are not new to Canada; in fact, they occupy a large portion of Canada’s contemporary political narrative, illustrated most recently by the controversial incident that took place at York University when a professor denied a student’s request to skip a group project because his religious beliefs did not permit him working publicly with women – a request that was subsequently overruled by the university’s officials and that has since garnered much critique.
Another controversial case of religious accommodation is the proposed Québécois Charter of Values (Bill 60), whose implications for religio-cultural freedom and gender equality – particularly for those women wearing the hijab or niqab — have been hotly debated since the bill was announced in May 2013.
In this context – of heated debate and controversy over which human rights principle supersedes the other – is also the hot-button issue of sex-selective abortion among South and East Asian women in Canada: the abortion of female fetuses because of preconceived biases against them. Yet, in addition to sparking debates over multiculturalism versus feminism, this situation reveals yet another paradox: some individuals against the practice have termed it “the Achilles heel of feminism.”
This has reinvigorated Canadian pro-life activists in their calls to government action against abortion. Not only is sex-selective abortion a matter of gender discrimination and so-called cultural injustice in Canada’s multicultural polity, it is also on the political radar as the issue that will likely put our entire, cherished reproductive rights paradigm to the test.
These issues are part of an ongoing political narrative about the duty of Canada (and its citizens) to protect against the “cultural barbarism” of newcomers – a narrative in which, for instance, many South Asian Canadian communities play a prominent role.
How exactly has sex-selective abortion been represented in the Canadian public sphere and what is wrong with this picture?
Canada has been without anti-abortion legislation since 1988. This decision has time and again been legitimized on the grounds that a pro-choice stance guarantees the protection of individual freedom. Thus, the debate has never easily been reopened, particularly since Canada’s discourse of choice has been lauded as confirming the state’s responsibility towards ensuring gender equality in sexual and reproductive health. In this context, especially, evidence of sex-selective abortion being disproportionately practised by South and East Asian Canadian women hits a sore spot for ardently feminist pro-choice activists and for pro-life activists alike.
Over the past two years, the public controversy surrounding sex-selective abortion among newcomer women in Canada has gained increasing attention. From the study conducted by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital, whose findings were released in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in 2012 and suggested the likelihood of skewed sex ratios among foreign-born (particularly Indian and Korean) women in Canada, to the CBC’s hidden- camera investigation revealing early sex-determination ultrasounds offered at certain private clinics in immigrant-heavy areas of the country, to politician Mark Warawa’s campaign to pass Motion 408 condemning sex-selective abortions country-wide, and finally, to the March for Life campaign in May 2013 attempting to rebrand anti-abortion rhetoric by adopting as its theme, “’It’s a Girl’ should not be a death sentence,” sex-selective abortion has emerged as a political issue that has isolated many South and East Asian newcomer women in Canada.
What the numbers reveal
If the politics surrounding this issue have been so heavy, what do the numbers say? According to the evidence collected between 2006 and 2012, the sex ratios among first generation South and East Asian immigrants to Canada are only slightly higher than the norm, at 108 boys to 100 girls, although these numbers are likely to become even more skewed over time. A separate June 2012 study concluded that of all foreign-born mothers in the country, those from India are the most likely to have a male infant. But researchers Dr. Joel Ray and Dr. Prabhat Jha have both repeatedly stressed the lack of conclusive data about the cause of these sex-ratio discrepancies and their unwillingness to jump to any unwarranted conclusions.
Even with the limited evidence, these skewed sex ratios among certain communities in parts of the country have become the basis for heated political campaigns and popular representations that dwell on Canada’s abortion discourse, on the “question” of immigration, on gender equality and on the concern about violence against women.
It should be stressed that at the global level, sex-selective abortion is certainly a matter of grave concern – particularly as societies age and as marriage economies shift and transform. Given that the practice has been correlated to demographic statistics in certain parts of Canada – even if these statistics are slight – it is not to be dismissed from important national discussions about gender equality and reproductive justice in the country. The key question is how we frame such discussions.
Canadian public discourse on this issue has taken whatever little evidence there is of sex-selective abortion among South and East Asian communities out of any sociocultural and/or economic context that might explain why this is itself an issue, whose choice is at play and why the procedure might be harmful, regardless of who undergoes it – and where she might come from. Instead of critically engaging with the choices women make and calling to improve Canada’s reproductive care system, popular representations of this issue have relied very strongly on cultural stereotypes associated with immigrant women.
This kind of portrayal can’t be good for anybody.
While the evidence for the practice among South and East Asian women in Canada is inconclusive, it is essential to keep the discourse alive. The question of how we might begin to find a place for women’s experiences in the development of what Dr. Eileen Fegan calls a “reflexive legal and political strategy” by which to promote reproductive justice is one that should continue to preoccupy us – as responsible and politically aware citizens – beyond the timeline of any public images and political misrepresentations of the issue. After all, if it is not sex-selective abortion stirring our souls, it’s inevitably some other issue that is similarly steeped in ideas about gender, citizenship & immigration, and cultural diversity.
As a young – and, at times, idealistic – academic, I for one hope that this topic continues to be discussed in a constructive manner as a matter of social justice and social inclusion in Canada. Certainly, these tensions between multiculturalism and feminism aren’t going to stop influencing the Canadian public ethos anytime soon.
Amrita Kumar-Ratta holds a BA (Hon.) in International Development Studies and World Religions from McGill University and is a Master of Global Affairs Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She is passionate about issues of transnational migration, religio-cultural diversity and women’s rights. Along with her experience participating in various community-building projects in Canada and internationally and her recent appointment as a research analyst for the UNDP in Bangkok, she continues to conduct research on gender-based discrimination among South Asians in Canada.