Asia’s 163 Million Missing Girls

Over the past three decades, the prevalence of gender-selection abortions has spread from China to India and to parts of the U.S. Eleanor Clift on the biggest myths and most troubling stats.

06.21.11 7:16 PM ET

China’s one-child policy was put in place some 30 years ago, before ultrasound technology was widely available and used to determine the sex of a fetus. Three decades later, an imbalance of boys over girls that has been made possible by gender-selection abortion practices is visible not only in China, but in India and other developing countries -- and in ethnic Asian communities in the U.S.

Mara Hvistendahl is the author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. She puts the number of missing girls in Asia at 163 million, more than the entire female population in the U.S., and reports on the tens of millions of men in Asia, “surplus males,” who without female counterparts may purchase women from poorer countries.

She approaches these sensitive subjects without an ideological ax to grind, whether pro-life or pro-population control, documenting how sex selection has taken hold thanks to technology, lower birth rates, and deep-seated cultural biases that require a boy to carry on a family’s lineage.

Unlike the U.S., where abortion is legal but can be difficult to obtain and carries a stigma, the procedure is accessible and widely used in other cultures. Hvistendahl told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington that she supports abortion rights but found the procedure so pervasive in some countries that there are nearly three abortions for every birth. “The availability of relatively inexpensive screening with unconditional abortion is a game changer,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at AEI.

Falling birth rates in developing countries, which improve the health and education of mothers and children, have the unintended consequence of encouraging sex-selection abortion. When a woman gave birth to six children, the odds were 99 percent that one would be a boy. When she has two children, it’s only a 24 percent chance. “It’s not that women want more boys, they have less chance of getting them,” says Hvistendahl. Census data show that gender imbalance gets greater with second and third births. “They let nature take the first roll of the dice,” says Eberstadt, but after that, it’s “very apparent there’s a massive parental intervention going on.”

Contrary to popular myth, it’s not the poor and illiterate who are leading the way. “Sex selection starts with the urban, educated middle-class and filters down,” says Hvistendahl, adding that it seems paradoxical that educated women are more likely to abort a fetus. “Women in China are doing better than ever before, with more women in Ph.D. programs than men. …Yet this is happening at the same time,” she says. “If you don’t have a boy, you lose status.”

It is illegal in China and India to test for the sex of a fetus, but the law is sporadically enforced. Governments recognize the imbalance between men and women is a problem, and are taking modest steps to curb the phenomenon. In India, pregnant women are periodically dispatched to ask for the ultrasound test, and if the doctor agrees, he’s busted. Prizes are awarded to villages that achieve a balanced birth ratio between boys and girls, and a university in Bangalore is offering affirmative action to girls in families with no boys in hopes of stemming the societal trend. If parents think they’ll get a break in India’s highly competitive university system, they might be less inclined to abort a female fetus.

In Taiwan, surplus men take organized marriage tours at $10,000 a pop to Vietnam to find a wife. There are now so many Taiwanese men with Vietnamese wives that a little Saigon exists outside Taipei.

Japan has avoided the problem of de-valuing girls in part because families with girls can “adopt” a son-in-law, who then takes the family name to perpetuate the lineage.

Demographers say the gender imbalance that has distorted birth rates in so much of Asia is a transformational trend in developing countries. They point to South Korea as a place where sex-selection abortion was prevalent, but growing affluence and a movement of conscience restored girls to an honored place. They went from “an absolutely gruesome imbalance to almost biological normal,” says Eberstadt, who likens the change to the anti-smoking campaign in the U.S. where a kind of behavior that people once thought was okay is now stigmatized.

In the U.S., gender imbalance that favors boys is seen in Asian -American communities that have what Eberstadt calls a “biologically impossible imbalance between little boys and little girls.” Normal is 103 or 104 boys for every 100 girls. Over 107 should set off alarm bells and 130 would be “sci-fi land,” he says.  Societies top-heavy with men without wives, and potentially without jobs, can lead to unrest and violence. Alternatively, Eberstadt imagines a world of “honorable bachelorhood” where societies accept that between 10 and 20 percent of men are without wives.

With the exception of Asian-American immigrant communities, sex selection that favors boys has not taken hold in the U.S. Indeed, a controversial piece in Atlantic Magazine last year titled, “The End of Men,” found that people using fertility clinics were screening embryos to get girls. The provocative finding while it got a lot of attention is based on a very small subset, and there is no indication that the overall U.S. population is skewing female.

By calling attention to the global implications of sex selection, Hvistendahl hopes to awaken women’s rights groups dedicated to preserving reproductive rights to recognize that as technology has advanced, so has “a fundamental affront on the female sex.”