Sex-Selective Abortion.

Women aborting female foetuses and carrying males to full term – doing what it takes to make sure they have a son…

All of my mental “political” settings – and a large number of social ones – are still pretty firmly fixed on America. I hear “abortion debate” and am ready to sign petitions to a local keep Planned Parenthood from being shut down, oppose a bill requiring minors to have parental consent, and argue about the semantic idiocy of a debate in which both sides call themselves “pro”. But, all the “a woman’s right to choose” and “bad answer for a bad situation” rhetoric I’ve imbibed isn’t helping me have a stance on this… I’m having trouble sorting out what I’m supposed to think of it as a Feminist – much less a biologist – much less a materialist – much less a Westerner…

It’s been an issue of demographic note and substantial concern for decades that Asia is “missing women”. Millions of them.

Since the ultrasound became commonly accessible in the mid 80s, sex selective abortion has become a growing problem and by the 90s it had been specifically outlawed in several countries.

While China and India are the most concerning, Japan is the only Asian country whose sex ratios at birth are not unnaturally skewed to the male persuasion. It’s not entirely due to abortion: female infanticide has been an ugly rumour for centuries, female births are often unreported, and abandonment and adoption are no doubt part of the story.

Before prenatal sex determination was a possibility, the desire for sons usually resulted in large family sizes – couples kept having children, beyond their “ideal”, until they had a son (or two, to be on the safe side). In most countries, Differential Stopping Behaviour is still the normative expression of son preference. Abortions are still far more likely in a second pregnancy than a first, in a second pregnancy when the first was female – and more likely then again in a third pregnancy when the first two were female – and so on.

Lesser evil?

Abhorrent as the entire thing sounds – misogynistic and immoral – there’s a substantial argument that, at the end of the day, aborting the unwanted female children is preferable to subjecting them to later neglect and abuse. (Substitution hypothesis.)

Some researchers have gone so far to claim that, by reducing the number of women in the population, women will be more valued. (I’m not sure that I buy that argument – but it has been made.)

Regardless of whether further commodification of women in strongly patriarchal communities is, or could possibly be, a benefit to their well-being much less empowering – there is a broad understanding of the bases behind son-preference. Traditional patrilineal societies in which women move to their husband’s household and gain status by the number of sons they produce have a variety of mechanisms to reinforce and express son-preference, from religion to medicine. What probably matters the most is a couple’s fear for old age: daughters leave, but sons look after their parents in their old age. For countries (like China) without a pension system, its no wonder that a “traditional” framework like son-preference is as strong as ever in a “modernizing” culture.

Or are we the ones being prejudiced and close-minded? Is treating abortion as categorically wrong equally ethnocentric?

Taking the son-preference as a cultural given (since, for at least this generation, it is) – is sex-selective abortion really an expression of an ugly prejudice informed by a traditional “anachronistic” religious mindset?

The prejudice in the West (particularly America) against abortion is so strong that, even those who strongly believe it should remain legal frown on calling it a “contraceptive”. We agree that using it to control family size (we like to at least pretend that we only use abortion as a last resort) rather than prevent calamity (save the mother’s life, prevent rape-babies). The prejudice is so strong that I hesitate to even wonder how much of it is simply Judeo-Christian Hangover as opposed to logic.

… except… for… that whole scientific ambiguity as to the precise “beginning” of a “human life”..

Somewhere tangled in the “How many weeks counts as alive?” and “When can we tell the sex?” is the most gruesome aspect of sex-selective abortion and the way that its practised throughout developing nations: women wait, and are often forced to wait by their mother-in-laws and doctors, to determine the sex before having an abortion.

And, the poorer and more rural the woman – the older and less precise the technology to which she has access – and the further into the pregnancy she will have to wait to determine the sex. Meaning, late term abortions. (And I’m going to call those categorically, if not bad, terribly unfortunate.)

Then there’s the money doctors make from doing this – often illegally.

And, the case of China: Where will all the young men go?

The One Child Policy was implemented to slow the concerning population growth of the 60s-70s. Today, it varies regionally with ethnic minorities often exempted. Although only 35.9% of the population is limited to one child (52.9% are allowed a second child if the first is a girl) – the country has averaged 1.8 children for over a decade.

In Beijing, the penalty for breaking the law is more than 3x the average annual wage. In Shanghai, the government is actually trying to encourage couples to have more children – and 52% of those allowed a second child opt out.

The extremely high prevalence of boys – many now men – is worrying. Headlines rave about China’s “Bachelor” problem . Not only will they have no way of supporting themselves into old age, but fear of increased crime and violence in the meantime.

Extreme methods of population control…

Although its gone further than intended, the One Child Policy (or, really the One Boy Result) is, biologically speaking, most effective way to seriously decrease a population’s growth. Its the number of women – available wombs – that determine the number of children who can be born in a generation, after all, not the men…

… almost makes me wonder if, at some level, there could be an evolutionary connection between son-preference and cultures that developed in regions suffering from population-density…?



Feature Image: Noelle Tankard, 2009

Works Cited

  • Gupta, M.D., (2005) Explaining Asia’s “Missing Women”: A New Look at the Data. Population and Development Review, 31(3), pp.529-535.
  • Goodkind, D. (1996) On substituting sex preference strategies in East Asia: Does prenatal sex selection reduce postnatal discrimination? Population and Development Review
  • New York Times (2009) U.S. Births Hint at Bias for Boys in Some Asians
  • Oomman, N. (2002) Sex selection: The systematic elimination of girls. Reproductive Health Matters