Women's Human Rights and Migration: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States and India

Women's Human Rights and Migration: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States and India

Women's Human Rights and Migration: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States and India

Women's Human Rights and Migration: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States and India


Some of the most hotly contested international women's rights issues today arise from the movement of peoples from one country to another and the practices they purportedly bring with them. In Women's Human Rights and Migration, Sital Kalantry focuses on immigrants of Asian descent living in the United States who are believed to abort female fetuses because they do not want a female child. While sex-selective abortion is a human rights concern in India, should we, for that reason, assume that the practice undermines women's equality in the United States? Although some pro-choice feminists believe that these prohibitions on sex-selective abortion promote women's equality, other feminists fiercely oppose such laws, characterizing them as a Trojan horse in the larger pursuit to overturn the reproductive rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. Nearly half of state legislatures in the United States have proposed laws restricting sex-selective abortion since 2009 and nine have adopted them.

Kalantry argues that traditional feminist legal theories and international human rights law fail to provide adequate guidance in examining the human rights implications of the reproductive practices of immigrant women, evidenced by the fact that both supporters and opponents ground their claims in women's equality. She advocates instead for a context-based approach that is open to the possibility that sex-selective abortion practices will have significantly different human rights implications when they emerge in different national contexts. The product of extensive empirical and interdisciplinary research, Kalantry's book investigates the actual occurrence of sex-selective abortion among Asian Americans, the social and cultural contexts in which women in the United States and India practice sex-selective abortion, and the consequences of the laws in each country for women's equality. Women's Human Rights and Migration develops a transnational feminist legal approach to examining and legislating contested acts that result from migration.


A few years ago an Indian American undergraduate student at the University of Chicago asked me to moderate a film discussion about a documentary on sex-selective abortion in India and China. the screening of the film, It’s a Girl: the Three Deadliest Words, was sponsored by a wellregarded human rights center on campus. Before I agreed to host the film discussion, I wanted to know a little bit about the movie. Through an online search I learned that many women’s groups, including the National Organization for Women, were screening the film across the country. the film was also an official selection for the Amnesty International Film Festival, and it appeared in Ms. review of feminist movies. Given the support it had from feminist organizations, I agreed to moderate the discussion even though my initial Google search did not reveal any background about the people and organizations that made the movie.

However, when I watched the movie, I was troubled by the narrow story it told about sex selection in India. the movie began with a poor Indian woman from a village pointing to where she buried the infant girls she had killed; it depicted the violent removal of a fetus from the womb as part of a cycle of violence against Indian women; and it ended with an interview with a Caucasian American woman activist who said that she helps women in other countries because they cannot help themselves.

The characters in this film were exactly the offensive caricatures identified by human rights scholar Makau Mutua nearly two decades ago in his critique of human rights work. in this movie, Indians were savages, female fetuses were victims, and Caucasian American women were saviors. Nonetheless, much like the feminists who lauded the movie across the United States, the largely pro-choice audience for whom I moderated the film discussion did not challenge the film or its message.

Through a series of interviews with policymakers, advocates, and women who sex-select, the film framed sex-selective abortion as a cycle of violence . . .

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