Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Part two


How “Complicit” is the UN in Asia’s Sex Selective Abortion Crisis?

A new book has raised hackles among abortion advocates about just how much the UN Population Fund is to blame for more than 160 million missing girls in Asia: aborted in the quest for sons.  

Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men is “one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion” according to a Wall Street Journal review; the book’s scholarly credentials bolstered by a standing-room-only event with demographer Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

While conservatives hail the book’s breakthrough research, Hvistendahl’s fellow progressives haggle over its findings. The liberal Guardian’s review elicited a terse letter from UNFPA condemning Hvistendahl’s conclusion that UNFPA and feminist organizations have done little to stop the practice. In the letter UNFPA claims credit for persuading the Chinese to outlaw sex selection in 1994.

That law has done little, however. Sex selective abortion persists despite a similar ban in India, resulting in extremely skewed sex ratios at birth. Normally there are around 105 males per 100 females born, but China now reports a ratio of 120 boys to 100 girls and that has led to trafficking for prostitution and widespread bride buying.

In her response to the UNFPA letter, Hvistendahl dodges direct conflict with the agency and instead criticizes the Guardian’s review as “misleading” readers into thinking she had proven UNFPA’s direct complicity in the one-child policy that fuels sex selective abortion. “There is a difference between outright funding an injustice and ignoring injustice once it occurs,” she argues. Readers may not be so convinced.  

Hvistendahl ably demonstrates that despite UNFPA’s touted mission to fight gender discrimination, the agency deliberately refrains from taking a position on sex selective abortion. UNFPA officials told her privately this is because they are “in a bind” since, as one demographer working with UNFPA put it, “the right to abort remains UNFPA’s ‘priority issue.’”

“How do you hold on to this discrimination tag and at the same time talk about safe abortion access to it?” a UNFPA officer told her: “It has been a huge challenge to us…We are walking a tightrope.”

Internal UNFPA directives tell officers to shift the blame, emphasizing “women whose husbands beat them or threaten divorce if they don’t produce an heir.” One pamphlet directs advocates to “avoid language that holds the mother responsible…she has very little control over the decision…choice in the absence of autonomy is no choice.”

Hvistendahl cites a 2010 internal staff memo warning UNFPA country officers to stay away from the 1995 UN Beijing statement on women that condemned “prenatal sex selection and female infanticide” and to avoid associating the practice with human rights.

As soon as they acknowledge how many women go through numerous abortions to get a boy, a Canadian sociologist told her, “the Vatican will be the first one to say, ‘Ban abortion, make abortion illegal!’”

“Fear of the ‘A-word’,” Hvistendahl concludes, has “immobilized the very people who should be crying oppression.”


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