Ross Douthat:

Here’s an interesting paragraph from Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column assessing the political consequences of the House Republican push to pass a ban on sex-selective abortions:

The problem with [the] proposal is that it’s not entirely clear there is a problem. Sex-selection abortion is a huge tragedy in parts of Asia, but to the extent it’s happening in this country, it’s mostly among Asian immigrants. . .

Try to imagine a similar sentence being written about a different practice or problem. “The problem with criminalizing female genital mutilation is that it’s not entirely clear there is a problem. The practice is a huge tragedy in parts of Africa, but to the extent it’s happening in this country, it’s mostly among African immigrants.” Or: “The problem with criminalizing human trafficking is that it’s not entirely clear there is a problem. The practice is a huge tragedy in parts of the developing world, but to the extent it’s happening in this country, it’s mostly among Third World immigrants.”

The underlying issue here, I suspect, is that the logic of the pro-choice cause makes it extremely difficult even for people who acknowledge that sex-selective abortion is a “tragedy” to make the leap to the idea that it should be treated as a criminal offense.

How about an alternative example?

The problem with criminalizing sex-segregation in education is that it’s not entirely clear there is a problem. Sex segregation in schooling is still a huge tragedy in the Muslim world, but to the extent that it’s happening in this country it’s mostly among insular religious communities.

It’s pretty clear that Dana Milbank doesn’t view abortion as morally problematic as such. So if he finds something problematic about sex-selection abortion, I presume it’s because he thinks that if a community regularly prefers boys to girls, that reflects and reinforces sexism within that community. In suggesting that this isn’t a problem because it’s only manifested – in America – among recent Asian immigrants, Milbank is implying that (a) we’re not talking about that many people, so it doesn’t imply that sexism is rampant in America, and (b) the practice will die out of its own accord as the next generation assimilates to American norms. So we don’t need to stamp out the practice of sex-selection abortion in order to stamp out sexism. So it’s not a problem.

In his earlier dialogue with Matt Yglesias over the same subject, Douthat asked:

If the right to abortion is a fundamental human liberty, how do you address sex selection without infringing dramatically on the right to privacy?

The answer is obvious: the same way you would address hate speech without infringing dramatically on the right to free speech, or race discrimination in private businesses without infringing dramatically on the right to free association – you can’t. So, if you want to stamp out the activity, you infringe. Which some liberals have shown themselves to be perfectly willing to do, when they feel it’s necessary.

I don’t happen to find this line of reasoning especially persuasive, but it’s not incomprehensible.

I’ll go further. I suspect that most people who are pro-choice do have qualms of one sort or another about abortion, and do think that some abortions are undertaken for “wrong reasons” even if those reasons don’t reflect some social pathology that it’s okay from a liberal perspective to condemn (like sexism). I suspect that most people who are pro-choice would be creeped out by a woman who had had 20 abortions, or by a woman who was planning to have a child but had an abortion because her pregnancy interfered with a planned vacation. They would be creeped out for reasons that Douthat would probably have sympathy with, reasons that have something to do with the notion that these hypothetical women are treating pregnancy with insufficient gravity. But it doesn’t follow that those reasons imply that those who harbor them are closet pro-lifers. Suppose a wealthy man made a habit of burning trash cans full of money in front of homeless shelters just for kicks – would you say that somebody who was disgusted and appalled by this practice implicitly didn’t believe in a right to private property?

If you believe that abortion is murder, then all this is academic: it’s just wrong, period, always. But if you don’t believe that, you are not obliged to believe that the choice of whether or not to have an abortion is the equivalent of the choice of whether or not to have a latte. And yet even if you believe there are moral choices involved in abortion, that, in turn, does not oblige you to criminalize those practices you think are morally suspect.