For anyone who’s ever made a smug, self-righteous comment about abortion on either side of the divide—and really, who among us hasn’t?—or for anyone who’s ever looked at China’s draconian one-child policy and chalked it up to an outdated, sexist preference for boys that’s limited to Eastern cultures, Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men should be required reading. It might be the most important book written about women in years.
More than 20 years after Indian economist Amartya Sen generated much controversy with his article “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” Hvistendahl offers a sobering update on the gender imbalance that is growing ever-more prevalent around the world, but especially in Asia. As a result of sex-selective abortion by families desiring boys, India has a ratio of 112 boys for every 100 girls; in China it’s 121 to 100. (The “natural” sex ratio is 105 to 100 and biologists consider anything over 106 to be "impossible.") With the passage of time and continued population control measures in, especially, India and China, she puts the number of “missing” women at more than 160 million. The number is so high as to be practically incomprehensible, but Hvistendahl puts it in perspective: It’s more than the entire female population of the U.S.
The book has engendered considerable debate since its release last month. The NYT’s conservative columnist Ross Douthat reviewed it through a pro-life lens, saying that the book showed that access to abortion is driving the problem, and that this moral quandary is more a dilemma for pro-choicers than pro-lifers. He and Hvistendahl then had a lengthy back-and-forth, with Hvistendahl taking him to task for suggesting that limiting access to abortion is the solution.
But what makes Hvistendahl’s book so important is the way she drills down to the root causes of sex-selective abortion to show that there’s no room for black-and-white, East-vs.-West, pro-life-vs.-pro-choice moral superiority. No one comes out of her tale looking good. Those of us on the right who abhor abortion and think of China and India as the poster children for choice gone wrong? We have to confront the fact that, following World War II, Western leaders saw Asia and its growing populations as susceptible to communism, and supported population control as a way to combat that. Hvistendahl tells of Gen. William Draper, who oversaw the occupation of Japan after WWII and saw firsthand that abortion, legalized there in 1948, was an effective way to counteract population growth. Working for President Eisenhower, he worked with both the United Nations and the International Planned Parenthood Foundation and supported making foreign aid conditional on implementing population control.
On the other hand, the United Nations (specifically, the U.N. Population Fund) and the International Planned Parenthood Foundation—darlings of the left—do not come out looking any better to their fans. Perhaps their most grievous offense is their complicity in China’s practice of coercing women to have abortions, which came to a head at the 1984 U.N. World Population Conference in Mexico City, when pro-life advocates showed up with evidence of compelled abortions and sex-selective abortions in China. That, and not some desire to force poor women to bear unwanted children, is why Ronald Reagan issued an executive order banning the use of U.S. funds for NGOs that provide abortions, which has come to be known as the global gag rule. It was a victory for reproductive rights, not a defeat, as it’s often portrayed by the left.
Hvistendahl shows that this global gender imbalance creates problems for everyone. The latter third of her book paints a bleak picture of the future, and shares heartbreaking stories of what is already happening: Middle class and wealthy men traveling to Vietnam and elsewhere to buy brides from poor families, girls kidnapped into sex slavery, unemployment and high crime rates among men who live in cities with skewed sex ratios. But this gender disparity is mostly a problem for women. Contrary to what economists might think, a scarcity of women doesn’t increase their value in the way a scarcity of a material good does. It might make their families better off, but the women don’t directly benefit. The crisis the West helped create, and the future the world faces as a result, can perhaps be most succinctly summed up by an unnamed Chinese woman who underwent an abortion in China. “During the operation, I realized that it was not easy to be a woman. It is painful. Very painful.”