Aborting Girls Leaves Too Many Men, Not Enough Brides: Review

Mara Hvistendahl
Mara Hvistendahl, author of "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men." Photographer: Danielle Van Der Schans/Public Affairs Books via Bloomberg

Death, taxes and a ratio of 105 boys born for every 100 girls are some of the certainties that have kept societies functioning smoothly for centuries.

The historical rate of 105 among all countries is the outcome of evolutionary tweaking. Since more boys than girls die young, nature has found this way to create a balanced number of grown men and women.

But today, in China, India and elsewhere, a preference for boys and the practice of sex-selective abortions have played havoc with that balance. China has 113 boys born for every 100 girls, India and Vietnam are at 112, and Taiwan is at 108, according to data compiled by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

As a result, more than 160 million women are missing from the Asian population. And as the young lads born in place of girls mature, generations of men won’t find mates, fueling problems from violence to bride trafficking to health afflictions, according to Mara Hvistendahl, author of “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.”

Hvistendahl’s provocative, wide-ranging book describes how the decision to choose a child’s sex led to this unholy state.

The existence of these “surplus men” isn’t news. What Hvistendahl, a Beijing-based reporter for Science magazine, presents is a thoughtful, smartly researched overview of medical developments, policymaking and cultural trends that combined to upset the global sex ratio. Interviews with doctors, demographers and the author of 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb” add engaging first-person accounts.

Population Control

Hvistendahl lays much of the blame for current problems on the brew of reproductive technologies and population control activism in the 1960s and ‘70s that drove policy makers in poor countries, especially in Asia, to curb their birth rates by any means to secure aid dollars from the U.S. and Europe.

Western groups such as the United Nations Population Fund, International Planned Parenthood Federation and the World Bank indirectly fostered sex-selective abortions or looked the other way, she says.

The availability of ultrasound -- which lets a pregnant woman easily learn the sex of her child -- together with government efforts to limit a couple’s offspring pushed women to avoid multiple births in pursuit of a son. Couples who preferred boys for cultural or financial reasons could get them.

“Development was not supposed to look like this,” Hvistendahl writes. “For as long as they have speculated about the status of women, social scientists have taken for granted that women’s position improves as countries get richer.”

‘Large-Scale Ruination’

Hvistendahl criticizes women’s reproductive organizations for not lobbying against sex-selective abortions because doing so potentially muddies the message that women’s right to control their bodies shouldn’t be abridged in any way. She recognizes the conflict while lambasting their decision to ignore an issue that could lead to “large-scale ruination” for both sexes.

Policy makers in China and South Korea, worried about the future “dearth of brides” rather than the disappearance of tens of millions of girls, have reversed course and are now at pains to encourage the birth of girls. Some of the same demographers who once sought ways to curb population growth have been tapped to bolster the demand for daughters their earlier efforts helped to weaken, Hvistendahl reports.

In the last chapter, Hvistendahl shifts her attention to a fertility clinic in Los Angeles and the debate over “designer babies,” leaving little doubt that the use and abuse of reproductive technology is thriving in the land that delivered sex-selection capabilities to Asian nations in the first place.

“Unnatural Selection” is published by PublicAffairs (314 pages, $26.99). To buy this book in North America click here.

(Nina Mehta writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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