Over the past three decades the world has come to witness an ominous and entirely new form of gender discrimination: sex-selective feticide, implemented through the practice of surgical abortion with the assistance of information gained through prenatal gender determination technology. All around the world, the victims of this new practice are overwhelmingly female — in fact, almost universally female. The practice has become so ruthlessly routine in many contemporary societies that it has impacted their very population structures, warping the balance between male and female births and consequently skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males. This still-growing international predilection for sex-selective abortion is by now evident in the demographic contours of dozens of countries around the globe — and it is sufficiently severe that it has come to alter the overall sex ratio at birth of the entire planet, resulting in millions upon millions of new “missing baby girls” each year. In terms of its sheer toll in human numbers, sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls.
... today’s societies with unnaturally high SRBs [sex ratio at birth] and/or child sex ratios had an aggregate “boy surplus” of over 55 million males under the age of 20 by the year 2010; and if we assume that the SRBs and child/youth sex ratios in these societies should be around 105, the unnatural “girl deficit” for females 0-19 years of age as of 2010 would have totaled roughly 32-33 million...
The consequences of medically abetted mass feticide are far-reaching and manifestly adverse. In populations with unnaturally skewed SRBs, the very fact that many thousands — or in some cases, millions — of prospective girls and young women have been deliberately eliminated simply because they would have been female establishes a new social reality that inescapably colors the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavored sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signaling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.
Moreover, enduring and extreme SRB imbalances set the demographic stage for an incipient “marriage squeeze” in affected populations, with notably reduced pools of potential future brides. China’s persistently elevated SRBs, for example, stand to transform it from a country where as of 2000 nearly all males (about 96 percent) had been married by their early 40s to one in which nearly a quarter (23 percent) are projected to be never married as of 2040, less than 30 years from now, according to a 2008 analysis by the demographer Zeng Yi and colleagues in the journal Genus. Such a transformation augurs ill in a number of respects. For one thing, unmarried men appear to suffer greater health risks than their married counterparts, even after controlling for exogenous social and environmental factors; a sharp increase in the proportion of essentially unmarriageable males in a society with a universal marriage norm may only accentuate those health risks. In a low-income society lacking sturdy and reliable national pension guarantees for the elderly, a steep rise in the proportion of unmarried and involuntarily childless men begs the question of old-age support for that rising cohort. Economists such as Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner have hypothesized that mass feticide, in making women scarce, will only increase their “value” — but in settings where the legal and personal rights of the individual are not secure and inviolable, the “rising value of women” can have perverse and unexpected consequences, including increased demand for prostitution and an upsurge in the kidnapping and trafficking of women (as is now being witnessed in some women-scarce areas in Asia, as reported by Mara Hvistendahl in her new book Unnatural Selection).
Finally, there is the speculative question of the social impact of a sudden addition of a large cohort of young “excess males” to populations with sustained extreme SRBs: depending on a given country’s cultural and institutional capabilities for coping with this challenge, such trends could quite conceivably lead to increased crime, violence, and social tensions — or possibly even a greater proclivity for social instability. (For a decidedly pessimistic but studied assessment of these prospects, see Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer’s 2004 book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population.)
All in all, mass sex selection can be regarded as a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic, in which the aggregation of individual (parental) choices has the inadvertent result of degrading the quality of life for all — and some much more than others.
What are the prospects for mass sex-selective feticide in the years immediately ahead? Unfortunately, there is ample room for cautious pessimism. Although biologically unnatural SRBs now characterize an expanse accounting for something approaching half of humanity, it is by no means clear that this march has yet ceased.
As we have seen, sudden steep increases in SRBs are by no means inconsistent with continuing improvements in levels of per capita income and female education — or, for that matter, with legal strictures against sex-selective abortion. Two of the key factors associated with unnatural upsurges in nationwide SRBs — low or sub-replacement fertility levels and easy access to inexpensive prenatal gender-determination technology — will likely be present in an increasing number of low-income societies in the years and decades immediately ahead. The third factor critical to mass female feticide — ruthless son preference — is perhaps surprisingly difficult to identify in advance. In theory, overbearing son preference should be available from demographic and health surveys — such as India’s National Family and Health Survey, which demonstrated that prospective mothers in the state of Punjab desired their next child to be male rather than female by a ratio of 10 to 1. Yet ironically, despite the many tens of millions of dollars that international aid and development agencies have spent on the hundreds of demographic and health surveys they have supported in low-income countries over recent decades, information on sex preference is almost never collected. (Evidently, Western funders of Third World population programs are concerned about the number of babies local parents desire, not their genders.)
Differential infant and child mortality rates arguably also offer clues about son preference: societies where female rates exceed male rates (patterns arising from systemic discriminatory mistreatment of little girls) may be correspondingly disposed to prenatal gender discrimination as well. According to the World Health Organization’s 2009 Life Tables, over 60 countries currently experience higher infant or age 1-4 mortality rates for girls than for boys: a roster including much of South-Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, and over a dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa. If such gender bias in mortality turns out to be a predictor of sex-selection bias, this global problem may get considerably worse before it gets better.
Considerations for the Future
There is, however, one country thus far that has managed to return from grotesquely imbalanced SRBs to normal human ratios: South Korea. As explained by Woojin Chung and Monica Das Gupta in 2007 in Population and Development Review, there is still considerable dispute about the factors involved in this turnaround, with many institutions and actors ready to take credit (as the old saying goes: success has many fathers). Available evidence, however, seems to suggest that South Korea’s SRB reversal was influenced less by government policy than by civil society: more specifically, by the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated congealing of a mass movement for honoring, protecting, and prizing daughters. In effect, this movement — drawing largely but by no means exclusively on the faith-based community — sparked a national conversation of conscience about the practice of female feticide. This conversation was instrumental in stigmatizing the practice, not altogether unlike the way in which nationwide conversations of conscience helped to stigmatize international slave-trading in other countries in earlier times. The best hope today in the global war against baby girls may be to carry this conversation of conscience to other lands. Medical and health care professionals — without whose assistance mass female feticide could not occur — have a special obligation to be front and center in this dialogue.
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