One night in 1978 a student in Delhi’s most prestigious obstetrics program reported for his first delivery. Just then he saw a cat bound from the hospital room with a “thing…wet with blood, mangled” in its mouth. Unfazed, the doctors and nurses went on to perform more abortions than births, several at six or seven months of pregnancy. When the student finally asked a nurse why the aborted child was not treated with more care she replied flatly: “Because it was a girl.”
Such descriptions permeate journalist Mara Hvistendahl’s first book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.
More than 160 million women are missing in Asia alone due to sex selective abortion, a number greater than all the females now living in the United States. The ratio of boys to girls born in Asia has risen to ever more unthinkable highs and Hvistendahl seeks to understand why.
Her findings buck conventional wisdom. She starts by refuting the idea that sex selection is about poverty. It is the wealthy—like Delhi’s most prestigious hospitals and clientele—who initiate the practice, while the general population sadly follows suit. Los Angeles’ boutique in-vitro fertilization trade is the latest episode in the crisis.
Despite the common narrative, son preference, per se, is not the main cause. Rather, the rise of abortion and fertility control—in countries of diverse cultural practices from Azerbaijan to China—are the common thread.
Hvistendahl draws from Matthew Connelly’s 2008 history of population control to show how population advocates saw compound benefits of culling the number of potential mothers. In one example, she painstakingly tracks money, medical technology, and Malthusian ideas from the West to India, where the Army and elite government-backed physicians inculcated the rest of the nation’s doctors. The Rockefeller Foundation, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Population Council, and most of all the Ford Foundation, invested in spreading sex selection.
While such liberal institutions garner most of the blame, Hvistendahl indicts the Republican establishment as well. US Army general William Draper, who merits a whole chapter, saw widespread abortion as a way to keep Japan and China from reemerging militarily after the Second World War. Draper saw too little time for a “sustained educational effort” about family planning and found abortion more practical anyway: it was easier for operatives to spot a pregnant woman than one considering conception. Draper later founded Population Action International, an international abortion research and advocacy organization.
The paucity of marriageable females has diminished, not enhanced, women’s status: bride buying, with little or no consent, abounds. Hvistendahl includes heartrending interviews with girls abducted in their early teens and forced to have sex with 17 men a day for three months in order to initiate them into prostitution.
The last myth Hvistendahl shatters is the feminists’ claim that they defend women against such abuse. To the contrary, she finds a conspiracy of silence. Hvistendahl’s scrutiny of the UN Population Fund’s role in the crisis is the subject of next week’s article.