Unnatural Selection

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl

For the past few years, we've been hearing about the imbalance of boys vs. girls in China--people want to have boys, and so you get orphanages full of girls and schools full of little boys who won't have anyone to marry when they grow up. We've been hearing about it happening in India too, though China usually seems to get what headlines are going. Hvistendahl has investigated this social trend and documents it thoroughly. The news is really bad: throughout Asia and now Eastern Europe, people frequently choose to abort baby girls in hopes of getting sons instead. The practice is far more pervasive than anyone realized (it persists in groups in the US too), it's growing in many areas, it's routinely ignored, and it results in millions of angry young men with no hopes of marriage but plenty of time for violence.

This is a really horrifying issue. The basic story is that in developing countries that are starting to become more prosperous, the one- or two-child family is often held up as an ideal. Decades of pressure to exert control over population growth has resulted in families that plan to have one or two children. But these would-be parents want sons more than they want daughters. If the first child is a daughter, they just plan to try again. But when second or third children show up on the ultrasound as female, they are very frequently terminated in hopes of trying again and getting boys. Many women have multiple abortions--and these happen after 20 weeks, fairly late--and the cumulative effect is that there are 163 million 'missing girls' in Asia.

The first section details the demographics of this trend. Korea has peaked and is now normalizing (though at an incredibly low rate of birth), India and China are peaking now, while Albania is very out of balance and the government denies any problem. Hvistendahl documents why parents do it, why doctors encourage it or go along, and there's some history about colonial India.

In the second section she delves deep into population-control history. In the 50's, 60's, and 70's, everyone was worrying about the "population bomb"--most especially in Asia and India. Paul Erlich might as well have outright said the words "Yellow Peril" in his book, but he was a minor player. The World Bank was right in there too, enforcing strict population-control measures. India cooperated and came up with awful ideas like forcibly sterilizing millions of poor men, and in Korea it was worse, with women forcibly put through abortions and then sterilized. China got enthusiastic too and enforced similar measures. For some reason, policy-makers seem to have thought that getting rid of unborn baby girls would be an especially great idea, delivering a double dose of population control, and they said so publicly.

Well, decades of pressure worked. The descendants of the innocent victims of population control learned their lesson, and they get rid of their girls voluntarily. In the last section, Hvistendahl looks at what a society without enough women looks like. Girls are valuable, but that doesn't make them powerful--it makes them vulnerable to trafficking, or to being sold to wealthier men. The poorest men then have no prospects for marriage, which must make life look pretty bleak. Angry young men with no girls around tend to be more violent and more criminal.

Feminist activists have labored to make abortion freely available and morally neutral. In much of Asia, that is the case, and I'm not sure I like the picture. Most women getting abortions are not young and desperate--they are married women who want sons. Feminists have not wanted to make even the tiniest move towards disapproving of abortion--even when girls are the primary victims--and they have tended to ignore sex selection entirely. The result is overall worse conditions for all women, at least the ones who made it to birth, and Hvistendahl (who is also reluctant to say that any limits on abortions would be a good idea) draws the lesson that ignoring problems will not make them go away.

An odd detail caught my eye. At the end of the final chapter, the author interviews a Korean woman who waited too long and was unable to have more than one child. She now advises her friends to have babies early. Hvistendahl comments that such concerns are becoming "less relevant as technology makes it possible for women to have children into their forties and fifties," citing IVF as the new thing in Seoul. But just three pages later, she points out that IVF is an arduous and expensive process with a pretty low success rate.

The conclusion looks at a fertility clinic in LA, where sex selection through IVF is becoming a trend. Americans tend to want girls, but the ethical questions remain the same. When it comes to having a baby, what is OK and what is not? Hvistendahl never covers the question of whether or not it's ethical to terminate a pregnancy when a genetic problem such as Downs is present, and I suppose that is outside the scope of the book, but it's certainly a related issue. In the US, about 90% of babies with Downs are aborted before birth, and that is not something that we discuss much, but I think that's pretty horrific too.

It's an incredibly sad book, detailing a level of wickedness I never imagined, even though I knew something about sex selection. Think twice before you read it, but then read it because it's an issue that will affect all of us.

I'm counting this title as my Social Sciences selection for the Mixing It Up Challenge. I also had a hard time figuring out where to put it on my reading map (that no one but me cares about), but the author lives in Beijing so I put my marker there.


  1. Oh my. I read a novel based on this issue a couple of years ago, but that was *fiction*! I don't think I could read this one without being scared to death!
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. I've had this out from the library twice now, and both times I just couldn't quite stomach starting it. I've watched a couple documentaries/read some short articles that touch on this, and they were so, so disturbing. *sigh* I'm sure I'll muster the fortitude one of these days.


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