Mara Hvistendahl is worried about girls. Not in any political, moral or cultural sense but as an existential matter. She is right to be. In China, India and numerous other countries (both developing and developed), there are many more men than women, the result of systematic campaigns against baby girls. In "Unnatural Selection," Ms. Hvistendahl reports on this gender imbalance: what it is, how it came to be and what it means for the future.What's at the same time interesting and dissonant is that Ms. Hvistendahl comes from entirely outside the pro-life movement, nor does her horror at the idea of people aborting girls for being girls carry through to opposition to abortion itself.
In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio is biologically ironclad. Between 104 and 106 is the normal range, and that's as far as the natural window goes. Any other number is the result of unnatural events.
Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, the number is 121—though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark. China's and India's populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107. But the imbalance is not only in Asia. Azerbaijan stands at 115, Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120.
But oddly enough, Ms. Hvistendahl notes, it is usually a country's rich, not its poor, who lead the way in choosing against girls. "Sex selection typically starts with the urban, well-educated stratum of society," she writes. "Elites are the first to gain access to a new technology, whether MRI scanners, smart phones—or ultrasound machines." The behavior of elites then filters down until it becomes part of the broader culture. Even more unexpectedly, the decision to abort baby girls is usually made by women—either by the mother or, sometimes, the mother-in-law.
If you peer hard enough at the data, you can actually see parents demanding boys. Take South Korea. In 1989, the sex ratio for first births there was 104 boys for every 100 girls—perfectly normal. But couples who had a girl became increasingly desperate to acquire a boy. For second births, the male number climbed to 113; for third, to 185. Among fourth-born children, it was a mind-boggling 209. ...
Ms. Hvistendahl argues that such imbalances are portents of Very Bad Things to come. "Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live," she writes. "Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent." As examples she notes that high sex ratios were at play as far back as the fourth century B.C. in Athens—a particularly bloody time in Greek history—and during China's Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. (Both eras featured widespread female infanticide.) She also notes that the dearth of women along the frontier in the American West probably had a lot to do with its being wild. In 1870, for instance, the sex ratio west of the Mississippi was 125 to 100. In California it was 166 to 100. In Nevada it was 320. In western Kansas, it was 768.
There is so much to recommend in "Unnatural Selection" that it's sad to report that Ms. Hvistendahl often displays an unbecoming political provincialism. She begins the book with an approving quote about gender equality from Mao Zedong and carries right along from there. Her desire to fault the West is so ingrained that she criticizes the British Empire's efforts to stamp out the practice of killing newborn girls in India because "they did so paternalistically, as tyrannical fathers." She says that the reason surplus men in the American West didn't take Native American women as brides was that "their particular Anglo-Saxon breed of racism precluded intermixing." (Through most of human history distinct racial and ethnic groups have only reluctantly intermarried; that she attributes this reluctance to a specific breed of "racism" says less about the American past than about her own biases.) When she writes that a certain idea dates "all the way back to the West's predominant creation myth," she means the Bible.These struck me, in particular, because this odd police regime she recommends sounds very much like what pro-choice advocates often accuse pro-lifers of wanting to institute. Obviously, it takes a much more invasive regime to allow abortion but only for reasons that you approve of than simply to ban it as a legitimate medical procedure. Once again, there is a police state supporter in the room, and it's not the person standing on the right.
Ms. Hvistendahl is particularly worried that the "right wing" or the "Christian right"—as she labels those whose politics differ from her own—will use sex-selective abortion as part of a wider war on abortion itself. She believes that something must be done about the purposeful aborting of female babies or it could lead to "feminists' worst nightmare: a ban on all abortions."
It is telling that Ms. Hvistendahl identifies a ban on abortion—and not the killing of tens of millions of unborn girls—as the "worst nightmare" of feminism. Even though 163 million girls have been denied life solely because of their gender, she can't help seeing the problem through the lens of an American political issue. Yet, while she is not willing to say that something has gone terribly wrong with the pro-abortion movement, she does recognize that two ideas are coming into conflict: "After decades of fighting for a woman's right to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, it is difficult to turn around and point out that women are abusing that right."
Late in "Unnatural Selection," Ms. Hvistendahl makes some suggestions as to how such "abuse" might be curbed without infringing on a woman's right to have an abortion. In attempting to serve these two diametrically opposed ideas, she proposes banning the common practice of revealing the sex of a baby to parents during ultrasound testing. And not just ban it, but have rigorous government enforcement, which would include nationwide sting operations designed to send doctors and ultrasound techs and nurses who reveal the sex of babies to jail. Beyond the police surveillance of obstetrics facilities, doctors would be required to "investigate women carrying female fetuses more thoroughly" when they request abortions, in order to ensure that their motives are not illegal.
Such a regime borders on the absurd. It is neither feasible nor tolerable—nor efficacious: Sex determination has been against the law in both China and India for years, to no effect. I suspect that Ms. Hvistendahl's counter-argument would be that China and India do not enforce their laws rigorously enough.
That said, like the reviewer, I hope that Ms. Hvistendahl's work will, contrary to her wishes, call attention through the wider culture to the shocking nature of abortion, and not leave them thinking, "It's horrible to abort a baby just because she's a girl, but on the other hand, if you want to abort her because you don't want to have to shop at Costco, well, go right ahead!" Perhaps it can even do a better job of that since it comes from the "safe" source of a pro-choice feminist.