Sex Selection

I’m reading a very interesting/shocking book called Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, written by Mara Hvistendahl. Just as the title says, the book focuses on how sex selection abortions came to be, and the effect they have on populations and the societies that are affected by an overabundance of boys. A team of French demographers place gender imbalance on par with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2008 it was estimated that AIDS had claimed 25 million lives in the history of its epidemic. This is a fraction of the estimated 100-160 million girls that have been lost to sex selective abortion practices. As the first generation touched by sex ratios imbalance grows up, the silent biological discrimination that is sex selection has been exacerbated by visible threats to women, including sex trafficking, bride buying, and forced marriages. This only exacerbates the problem, and only further impedes progress in reproductive health for women.

From the 1950’s through the 1970’s UNFPA, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and The World Bank sent $1.5 billion in aid to India to support implementation of “any necessary population control measures: including abortion, sterilization, and birth control. Quite interestingly, many of the main players pushing for the implementation of these programs in India, China, and a few other Asian countries were fighting extension of the same rights in the US. The argument was that over population in these areas was impeding development. Chinese officials felt that boosting per capita GDP was a long and difficult process that would take many years to accomplish. With the support of these aforementioned western organizations, China implemented the one-child policy in 1980. Cutting the birth rate and reducing the number of people who would share in the wealth (or lack there of) in the nation seemed a quick and attainable way to push development. Economic development, along with the urbanization, education, and new job opportunities has been shown to lead to lower birth rates in families. But because development is accompanied by plummeting birth rates, it raises the stakes for each birth, increasing the chances parents will abort a female fetus, creating an alarming triangle of development, falling fertility, and sex selection.

In 1982, two years after the one child policy was enacted in China, ultrasounds were widely distributed. Though sex determination was technically illegal in China, there was little incentive to crack down on it, so a small bribe could go a long way. The fine for sex selection was also ten times less than the fine for having a second child. This drove many parents to choose to “beat the odds” and ensure that they had a son on the first try.  I thought this was a striking example of the different effect that certain technologies can have in culturally distinct environments. In the political and cultural climate of China and India at the time, ultrasound technologies served as an inexpensive gateway for working the system and helping families to ensure that they had a boy, at the expense of unborn girls.

Reading this book has made me stop and think about how the implementation of certain technologies often has dangerous and unintended results. I don’t think technology should be withheld, but the implementation has to be careful and sensitive to the political and social climates they are being introduced to. So what can be done? How do you check that what is supposed to be a helpful technology is not promoting gender inequality and obstructing maternal health? As sex selection cannot happen without abortion, this issue obviously opens up conversation on access to abortions and what should be done in that respect.

2 thoughts on “Sex Selection

  1. Wow, that sounds like a very intense book. It saddens me to think about how modern technologies can help to enable millions of girls to be aborted as a part of sex selection practices. Brenna, I think you raise a good question that will only become more and more applicable throughout our lifetimes, as medical technologies are able to do more and more. Questions like: should life be sustained on medical equipment like ventilators for years, and who is paying for this? If the cost becomes quite low, will it become the norm for people’s DNA be genotyped (and then who will have access to this information?)? What about tests that can be done to see if a developing fetus has genetic defects, and will this result in an abortion, and is that ethical? So many more questions too. Ethics and healthcare is a tricky topic.

  2. I just wanted to comment about China’s One-Child Policy. Prior to my project and researching more concerning to this policy, I was strongly against the One-Child Policy and felt that it was going against basic human rights of reproduction. However, as I looked more into it, the policy seemed like a viable solution to the fast growing society. It was one way that the government could control the growth of the population. And about a year ago, China revised their One-Child policy to allowing families to have more than one child if either of the parents were an only child. This is because of the societal structure. Often times, the younger generation takes upon the role of taking care of the older generation when they are married. So say for instance, you marry your husband/wife and your in-laws are still alive as well as your parents then as a couple, you are support four family members. If you have another child then you are supporting 5 family members, excluding you and your husband/wife. If your grandparents are still alive, that adds more family members you are responsible for taking care of. Due to this imbalance of one individual having to take care of so many family members, China has allowed for more than one child. As for the selection of gender, I know that it is still happening but it is becoming less frequent. Most of the families that choose to have an abortion because of the gender of their child is unfavorable are wealthier families. Most of China’s healthcare expenses are paid out-of-pocket by the patient and abortion surgeries are expensive. There is a saying of if you do not have the money to be treated then you will not be treated in China, even if it is life threatening. However, sex selection is becoming less common as the younger generation of mothers do not have the traditional view of having a son to carry on the family name. In some cases, the mothers would rather have a girl than a son.

    As for the use of technology, I think technology is great. It has helped save many lives. For birth, it certainly allows us to gain more insight to the infant and birth process, which we have had before. We can tell the gender, size, and weight of the infant before the baby even comes out of the womb. At the same time, birth has happened for several hundred and thousands of years without one piece of that equipment we so heavily depend on now. Technology is great but I do not think we should let it become a crutch in the birthing process.

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