In Asia, The Perils Of Aborting Girls And Keeping Boys

Originally published on July 14, 2011 7:26 pm

In her trip through China's Suining County in Jiangsu province, journalist Mara Hvistendahl saw plenty of familiar signs of economic growth. But she also saw something at an elementary school that startled her: There were far more boys in the classrooms than girls.

After months of research, she discovered a wide gap in the ratio between boys and girls, not just in China, but in other parts of East and South Asia. In her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Hvistendahl writes that wider access to ultrasound technology and abortion has allowed parents in these developing countries to abort daughters in the womb and keep sons.

"As a country develops, birth rate falls, new technology comes in, and, unfortunately, one of the side effects is skewed sex ratio at birth," Hvistendahl tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.

The rise of an educated and wealthy clientele in many Asian countries has made sex-selective abortion more common. But, Hvistendahl says, there are a few key differences between the cultural context of abortion in Asia and the West.

"In the U.S., a woman may have to brave picket lines to get an abortion," Hvistendahl says. "She may not have a clinic in her town, and in many parts of Asia abortion is readily available, and so is ultrasound."

Hvistendahl adds that gender discrimination in developing nations does not fully explain the drop in the number of girls born. "You have countries where women have very low status — in the Middle East for example — and the sex ratio at birth is balanced," she says.

Gender imbalance comes, in part, from dramatic drops in birth rates. "The average Korean woman in the 1950s had six children. Now the birth rate is close to one," says Hvistendahl. "It's not that women necessarily want sons any more than before, but there's more pressure on them."

Hvistendahl explains that part of the drop in birth rates in Asia can be attributed to "a history of population control, and a dark history at that."

The Dangers Of Gender Imbalance

As an example of the consequences of sex selection, Hvistendahl says that in Taiwan, many men have difficulty finding wives using traditional methods. Some even spend thousands of dollars on "marriage tours" to other Asian countries.

The fee includes travel, lodging and the purchase of women there. Hvistendahl says the problem is not limited to Taiwan, but also South Korea, and is growing in China, India, Albania and Azerbaijan as well.

As men find it more difficult to find wives in these countries, Hvistendahl says, "it is leading to unrest and almost certainly will lead to more." Unmarried men are responsible for more violent crime than married men. And, Hvistendahl adds, research in eastern China showed a correlation between a high male-to-female sex ratio and the crime rate.

'Consumer Eugenics'

Although sex-selective abortion has not been as popular in the West as in Asia, Hvistendahl points out that some families in the West use in vitro fertilization, which allows them to choose the gender of their children. Hvistendahl says in the West, parents that use this method choose to have girls more often than boys.

"I actually think Americans selecting for girls is really not that different from what's happening in Asia," Hvistendahl says. "In both cases, parents are going in with preconceived notions about how the child's going to turn out, and it's really, in both places, this shift toward consumer eugenics and toward parents making small decisions over how their child's going to turn out. And, you add those decisions up and they have a big impact on society."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

When reporter Mara Hvistendahl traveled to Suining County in China, she found a booming economy, apartment buildings decorated with Roman columns, supermarkets selling jewelry and watches next to produce. And, at an elementary school, she saw students assembled in two straight lines like the children in the book "Madeline" - except these kids were overwhelmingly male.

MONTAGNE: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men." She cites a widely accepted figure - if sex ratios at birth had stayed normal over the past few decades, there would be 163 million more females in Asia.

MONTAGNE: Preferring baby boys to baby girls isn't a new phenomenon. What's different, she says, is that parents in developing countries can now put that preference into action far more easily.

MARA HVISTENDAHL: As a country develops, birth rate falls, and new technology comes in, and, unfortunately, one of the side effects is skewed sex ratio at birth.

MONTAGNE: Well, I think there will be a lot of people listening who will think wait a minute, in these countries, women, families, couples rather, don't have really good access to sex selection technologies. You know, it's expensive, they have to go to a city, but that's not true.

HVISTENDAHL: One thing that's key to remember, is this is happening among educated women with more resources, more money. At the same time, there are cheap ultrasound machines available, and then also there's a very different context surrounding abortion in Asia. You know, in the U.S., a woman may have to brave picket lines to get an abortion. She may not have a clinic in her town. And in many parts of Asia, abortion's readily available and so is ultrasound.

MONTAGNE: Can this be entirely attributed to prejudice against girls? Because, what seems unusual about this, is you're talking about richer societies with women who are more highly educated - and yet it's turning into a drastically bad situation for fetuses that are female.

HVISTENDAHL: So, looking at gender discrimination alone, doesn't explain the problem, because in many societies around the world, parents tell researchers they want at least one boy. And you have countries where women have very low status, in the Middle East for example, and the sex ratio at birth is balanced. That just really does not explain what's happening.

MONTAGNE: What does explain what's happening?

HVISTENDAHL: Well birth rates, again, have fallen very dramatically. If you look at the average Korean woman, in the 1950s, had six children. Now the birth rate is close to one. And that's a very dramatic fall. If you have six children, the chance that one of those children will turn out to be a boy is 99 percent. So it's not that women necessarily want sons any more than before, but there's more pressure on them. And these countries also have a history of population control - a dark history, at that.

MONTAGNE: So give us an example of what it means for a country or region to have more boys. One of the big examples in your book is Taiwan.

HVISTENDAHL: Taiwan was one of the earlier countries to practice sex selection, and today you have this whole generation of men that are having trouble finding wives. And there are these marriage tours, they're called, that have developed, where a man can pay $10,000 and he gets a flight, room and board, and the fee includes the price of a wife.

MONTAGNE: Put in perspective how many missing women there are, or the reverse, how many bachelors there are who cannot easily find a bride nearby as they traditionally would, a Taiwanese bride.

HVISTENDAHL: Well, to give you a sense of how many men are going on these tours, in parts of rural Korea and Taiwan, about 40 percent of men are marrying women from foreign countries, and almost all of them are turning to matchmakers. In China and India you'll have 15 percent of men, over the next few decades, who will lack female partners. And so, that is a very grave issue in those countries.

MONTAGNE: And what does that mean for the society?

HVISTENDAHL: We do know that unmarried men are responsible for more crime and more violent crime than married men. And there has been one study that was done in eastern China, that showed the sex ratio at birth didn't rise in all parts of China at the same time. So economists looked at the areas where people started having more boys earlier, and then compared that against the crime rate. And what they found is that the increase in sex ratio in birth actually contributed to the crime rate - and greatly.

MONTAGNE: There was a distinction correlation.

HVISTENDAHL: There was a correlation between the crime rate and the gender imbalance in eastern China.

MONTAGNE: Why didn't this gender imbalance happen in more developed countries, earlier, when they had access to things like ultrasound and amino-synthesis, things that tell you want the sex of the unborn child is?

HVISTENDAHL: Well, in the West we don't have the same history of population control that they do in Asia. At the same time, ultrasound technology has only been at the point where we've been able to determine the sex of the fetus early on, since the 1980s. You know, we hit development much earlier. But Americans do, today, actually select for sex during in vitro fertilization.

MONTAGNE: And does that favor boys?

HVISTENDAHL: Well, the directors of fertility clinics say that Americans prefer girls. But, I actually think American's selecting for girls is really not that different from what's happening in Asia. In both cases, parents are going in with a kind of preconceived notions about how the child is going to turn out, and it's really - in both places - shift toward consumer ugentics, toward parents making small decisions over how their child's going to turn out. And, you know, you add those decisions up and you have an impact on society.

MONTAGNE: Mara Hvistendal is the author of "Unnatural Section: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

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