Sex Selection: Nobody's Business?

Science, technology, and life.
June 15 2009 8:41 AM

Sex Selection: Nobody's Business?

Last week, when Ross Douthat made a case for " regulating abortion ," I asked him and other pro-lifers how far we should go . The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act has a maximum jail sentence of two years for doctors who perform the forbidden procedure. Is that the kind of regulation we should apply to abortions? Would the country stand for it?

Today, let's turn the tables on those of us who oppose abortion regulation. How far should we go? Would you oppose regulation even of abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls? Because there's increasing evidence that such abortions, which take place by the millions in Asia, are now being done by the thousands in the United States as well.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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Let's start with the data noted here last year , when

economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund published an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examining the ratio of male to female births in "U.S.-born children of Chinese, Korean, and Asian Indian parents." Among whites, the boy-girl ratio was essentially constant, regardless of the number of kids in a family or how many of them were girls. In the Asian-American sample, the boy-girl ratio started out at the same norm: 1.05 to 1. But among families whose first child was a girl, the boy-girl ratio among second kids went up to 1.17 to 1. And if the first two kids were girls, the boy-girl ratio among third kids went up to 1.5 to 1. This 50 percent increase in male probability is directly contrary to the trend among whites, who tend to produce a child of the same sex as the previous child.

A recent paper by economist Jason Abrevaya adds :

The evidence from the California natality data is particularly striking for Indian births between 1991 and 2005: second-born children are 0.9 percentage points more likely to be boys, third-born children 6.6 percentage points more likely, and fourth-born children 8.1 percentage points more likely. Moreover, Indian parents are significantly more likely to have a boy (and a terminated pregnancy since last birth) if they have had only daughters previously. The simple framework of Section 4.5 suggests that the unusually high boy percentages among third- and fourth-born Indian children in California would be consistent with gender-selective abortion rates of around 10%. ...

Using census data, Abreveya estimates that from 1991 to 2004, U.S. families of Chinese or Indian descent aborted more than 2,200 fetuses just for being girls. (For the data, see Table 13 of his paper; he explains his calculations on Pages 23-24.)

Researchers had expected sex selection among Asians to decline as they became Americans. But in today's New York Times , Sam Roberts reports :

Demographers say the statistical deviation among Asian-American families is significant, and they believe it reflects not only a preference for male children, but a growing tendency for these families to embrace sex-selection techniques, like in vitro fertilization and sperm sorting, or abortion. ... [A] number of experts expressed surprise to see evidence that the preference for sons among Asian-Americans has been so significantly carried over to this country.

Roberts quotes one woman who got pregnant with a boy after having two girls. The woman says flatly: "If the third one was going to be a girl, then I would say probably I would have terminated."

Should that abortion be allowed? And if legal intervention in such cases is unwise, should we do something short of that? Should schools teach that aborting girls is wrong? Should doctors counsel couples not to do it? Should community leaders speak out against it? The last president called for a culture of life. Should this president call for a culture of respect for women?

What about purveyors of sex selection? Roberts notes that at least one assisted reproduction provider, the Fertility Institutes , offers sex selection and "has unabashedly advertised its services in Indian- and Chinese-language newspapers in the United States." (The company has also promoted and withdrawn an offer to select embryos for " eye color, hair color and complexion .") This form of sex selection takes place when the offspring are tiny, dish-bound embryos, not fetuses. The clinic's medical director, Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, says the practice is "not harming anyone." Is he right? Should he be allowed to continue peddling sex selection (as he does in this video ) to Asian-Americans? And if it's fine to advertise this service at the embryonic stage, why not at the fetal stage?

Absolutists on both sides need to think carefully. If you're pro-life, how far are you willing to go in regulating abortion? If you're pro-choice, how far are you willing to go in leaving it unregulated?