by Jennifer Roback Morse

This article was first published at on January 10, 2012.

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl
Public Affairs, 2011; 314 pages, $26.99

This brave and timely book has many strengths and one glaring, but understandable, weakness. The strength of this book is the reporting. Mara Hvistendahl, a liberal, pro-choice feminist, painstakingly documents the catastrophic consequences of the worldwide “choice” for male babies: gender imbalance leading to prostitution, sex slavery, and male frustration and aggression. The weakness of this book is the political analysis. She doesn’t understand how deeply Roe v. Wade changed American political culture, particularly within the conservative movement broadly conceived. But both these strengths and weaknesses work together to yield an honest and courageous book that should be read by anyone who considers himself (or herself) well informed.

Let’s start with the strengths. Hvistendahl is a very honest reporter. She became aware of the gender-imbalance problem while living in China as a journalist. She recounts how she visited a grade-school classroom to write an article on the solar heating system being installed in the school. She found herself in a “classroom full of smiling boys. I was tempted to abandon the solar power article and interview the teachers about the school’s population.” That experience repeated itself so many times that she couldn’t stand it anymore. Her journalist instincts required an investigation of the imbalanced sex ratio in Chinese society.

She found that the problem, however, is not unique to China, with its particularly high-pressure “one child policy” driving small family size. Hvistendahl found gender imbalances all around the world, not just in China or India. Albania, South Korea, Taiwan, Viet Nam, parts of Singapore, all have experienced skewed sex ratios. The normal gender ratio at birth hovers around 105 boys for every 100 girls, with anything between 104 through 106 boys considered normal. The Caucasus countries of the former Soviet Union have badly skewed sex ratios. Azerbaijan has a sex ratio of 115 boys, Georgia 118, and Armenia, a whopping 120. The American journalist expected that the explanation would be sexist attitudes: in male-dominated societies, patriarchs prefer sons. But she found that women were just as likely to prefer sons, and as responsible for sex-selection abortion, as their husbands. She also found that urban elites, not the rural poor, pioneered the practice of sex-selection abortion.

Where Technology and Abortion Meet

The factors that give rise to gender imbalance are a mix of technology and economic development, layered over the top of traditionalist belief systems. Among the factors related to economic development, the first is a rapidly developing economy, and one with a health-care system mature enough so that prenatal screening is widely and cheaply available. Second, abortion is pervasive, available at low cost and free of social stigma. And finally, in societies with gender imbalances, the overall population is declining.

In pre-modern times, old sex stereotypes and preferences for sons drove families to continue having children until they have a son. Today, those preferences have not dissipated. New ultrasound technology makes it possible to detect the sex of the child in the womb. The modern custom is to abort the baby if it is a girl; if a boy, give it birth. No need to experience nine months of pregnancy, and all the trouble of delivery, for every baby you conceive. Just give birth to the ones you want and kill the others in utero. Hence, technology and the availability of abortion, not just a “patriarchal” preference for sons, have been driving the imbalance of the sexes. Traditional attitudes for the imbalance are far from the whole story. As an Indian obstetrician put it, “If people had a son simply because they wanted a son, girls would have disappeared from this country one thousand years ago.”

Western population controllers were delighted with sex-selection abortion because it delivered a double whammy. Reducing the number of girls born reduces the numbers of future potential mothers. So getting the locals to “choose” sons over daughters using sex-selection abortion reduces both current and future populations. But unlike many of the population-control ideologues whom she covers, Hvistendahl never falls into the trap of believing that economic development requires abortion or population control. After all, the West, which is synonymous with “development,” didn’t require population control in order to grow economically. On the contrary, development came first; reduced family sizes came later.

The gender imbalance arose because of the push to cut birthrates and the prevalence of legal abortion. Both of these dubious factors were exported into developing countries by United Nations agencies in collaboration with elite American foundations. One might even say that the so-called experts of the West imposed these things on poor countries. The imported pressure to reduce overall fertility, combined with the general desire for sons, made the ultrasound technology irresistible.

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