Child quotas, abortion, and China's missing girls.

Science, technology, and life.
April 15 2009 10:34 AM

Sex Reversal

Child quotas, abortion, and China's missing girls.

Sixteen million girls are missing in China. And now we know what happened to them: They were aborted because they weren't boys.

A study published last week in the British Medical Journal, based on a survey of nearly 5 million Chinese children and teenagers, bares the gruesome numbers. Worldwide, the number of boys born per 100 girls ranges from 103 to 107. (The numbers later equalize due to higher male mortality.) Among Chinese children born from 1985 to 1989, the number of boys per 100 girls was 108, close to normal. But among those born from 2000 to 2004, the number rose to 124. The authors conclude that as of 2005, "males under the age of 20 exceeded femalesby more than 32 million."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Why so many more boys than girls? The authors point to two factors. First,

[T]he steady rise in sex ratios across the birth cohortssince 1986 mirrors the increasing availability of ultrasonographyover that period. The first ultrasound machines were used inthe early 1980s; they reached county hospitals by the late 1980sand then rural townships by the mid-1990s. Since then,ultrasonography has been very cheap and available even to therural poor.

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Second, the boy-girl ratio escalates radically among children who were born second or third in their respective families. The authors report:

The sex ratio at birth for first order births was slightly high in cities and towns but was within normal limits in rural areas. However, the ratio rose very steeply for second and higher order births in cities 138 (132 to 144), towns 137 (131 to 143), and rural areas 146 (143 to 149), although the numbers of second order births in cities were low. These rises were consistent across all provinces, except Tibet, with very high figures for second births in Anhui (190, 176 to 205) and Jiangsu (192, 174 to 212). For third births, the sex ratio rose to over 200 in four provinces …

Two hundred boys for every 100 girls. The number is mind-boggling.

Why would the boy-girl ratio rise so precipitously with birth order? Is there something in the Chinese water supply that makes women increasingly likely to bear sons as their families grow? Of course not. But there is something in Chinese law: the "one-child" policy, which limits family size but allows exceptions, with variations from province to province, for couples who have only daughters. Essentially, the exceptions give you a second or, in some cases, a third chance to have a son. That's why, as couples approach the family size limit or the exception allotment, the boy-girl ratio goes up. You get the ultrasound, and if the fetus is a girl, you abort it and try again for a son.

It's a terrible convergence of ancient prejudice with modern totalitarianism. Girls are culturally and economically devalued; the government uses powerful financial levers to prevent you from having another child; therefore, to make sure you can have a boy, you abort the girl you're carrying.

But maybe the story doesn't end there. Maybe the reach and the cold rationality of modern totalitarian government can be turned against the old prejudice. Although the overall male-female ratio rose to 124 in the cohort of Chinese kids born from 2000 to 2004, the authors point out that "the ratio thendeclined to 119 (119 to 120) for the 2005 cohort, perhaps indicatingthe beginning of a reduction in sex ratios for the future."

What could account for this decline? The authors explain:

The government is very aware of the problem andhas openly expressed concerns about the consequences of largenumbers of excess men for societal stability and security. As early as 2000 the government launched a range of policiesto specifically counter the sex imbalance, the "care for girls"campaign. This includes changes in laws in areas such as inheritanceby females, as well as an educational campaign to promote genderequality. These measures have had some success, with reportsof lower sex ratios at birth in targeted localities.

In other words, the quota on children, translated through sexism into a quota on girls, has created a political problem for the government. And this, in turn, has forced the government to confront sexism economically and culturally. This policy change is being driven not by moral enlightenment but by practical necessity. The old problem was too many children. The new problem is too few girls. Without enough girls, the boys become unruly. So the government, following the same collective logic that inspired the one-child policy, has become the world's biggest promoter of sexual equality.

Part of me wishes this turnaround were being driven by a better motive. But perhaps we should be especially relieved that pure self-interest is behind it. If the devaluation of women, and the expression of that devaluation through sex-selective abortion, becomes a broadly understood threat to regimes worldwide, women won't need to persuade men to value and treat girls more fairly. The population numbers will do the talking.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. A drug that cures stealing. 2. Poverty, biology, and intelligence. 3. A black market in children.)

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