Book Discussion – Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

Mara Hvistendhal’s book Unnatural Selection – Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men was quite eye opening for me. Several months ago, American-based websites and blogs that write about feminist and AAPI issues were livid over lawmakers trying to pass legislation against sex-selective abortions in America. Most decried the laws as racist, claiming there was no evidence that Asian-Americans participate in sex-selective abortions.

However, that is untrue. According to the 2000 United States census, Asian-American female birthrates in the United States for second children are the exact same as in China, 117 boys for every 100 girls (and if an Asian-American family has two girls, the sex ratio of boys over girls for third children is a staggering 151). The only explanation is sex-selective abortions. The legislation certain organizations in the US are trying to pass are racist in that they think Asian-Americans would be too stupid to lie about why they are seeking an abortion, but they are not racist for bringing to light a very serious issue. Female sex-selective abortion (what some call female fanticide or feticide) is having devastating consequences throughout Asia, not just in China and India, and the cultural idea that females are expendable did not die when Asians immigrated to the US. In fact, among Asian-American women born in the US, the rates of sex-selective abortions are slightly higher than immigrant women.

I believe that Hvistendhal attempts to bring balance to the conversation about female fanticide by being intentionally unbalanced. For decades, indeed for centuries, Western visitors to China and India have written about female infanticide. It has continually been one of the things that mark the East as barbaric and the West as civilized. But very little, if anything, has been said about the role Western powers played in the explosion of female fanticide rates in the 20th century.

Hvistendhal acknowledges that female infanticide has always happened in Asia. Even today, if you live in China or India and talk to locals about the gender imbalance problem, the answer is always boiled down to “Asian cultures prefer boys.” In all my years in China, I have never heard anyone lay an ounce of blame on Western interference. But even though Asian families have always preferred boys and female infanticide existed, it wasn’t until the 1960s that female fanticide became so widespread that the birthrates developed skewed gender numbers.

When Western powers were worried about the growth of communism and the population explosion in Asia, did they educate women, a proven way to curb population growth? No, they took the fastest, most barbaric, inhumane way possible – the murder of the next generation of mothers. Western politicians, doctors, and even UN council members saw that Asians were having multiple daughters in an attempt to get a boy. Simple birth control wouldn’t work because it wasn’t that families wanted to stop having children, they only wanted to stop after they had their boy. Instead of elevating the value of women, teaching that boys and girls have equal worth, they devised ways to help families get that boy on the first try…the first complete try, anyway. They worked to convince people that female fanticide wasn’t really murder, at least not as bad as killing a baby after it had been born naturally.

By importing ultrasound machines and other techniques that could determine the sex of the fetus, the gender rates swiftly became imbalanced. Even though in the 70s and 80s these techniques could only be used effectively in the third trimester, these dangerous late-term abortions became standard practice in many Indian and Chinese hospitals, or simply out of the back of a truck.

The role Western powers played in this human rights travesty should be brought to light.

They should be held culpable for their actions and work to right the wrongs done. However, the West has had access to ultrasound machines and better quality, safer tests for determining gender in the womb, but Western countries don’t suffer from a gender imbalance. To say China and India’s gender imbalance is solely because of access to Western medical devices is ridiculous. The West would not have been able to encourage sex selection if the cultures didn’t have a predisposition for doing it on their own already. But this I think is Hvistendhal’s point. In a world where culture has taken all the blame, it is time for Western powers to be taken to task. Both are equally responsible for the massive gender disparity Asia is suffering today. By not rehashing the issue of culture and focusing on the West, Hvistendhal is attempting to bring balance to the conversation as a whole.

Hvistendhal does an excellent job asking the tough questions many people, especially feminists, have been afraid to ask. I think everyone would agree that sex selective abortions are wrong.

Even if you are pro-choice, the practice of killing a baby because it is a girl is something everyone, especially feminists, should be fighting to end.

But when abortion is legal, as feminists believe it should be, what do you do when women abuse that right to eliminate women from the planet? Many women are rightfully concerned that any limits on abortion could lead to more and more limits on abortions. In fact, don’t think for one second that the lawmakers and organizations working to end sex selective abortions are doing so for the good of women. They have explicitly stated that by banning sex-selective abortions, they would have a foothold in getting all abortions eventually banned.

Once again, special interest groups are using culture and women’s choices as a weapon. In the 1960s, Western powers exploited female infanticide to encourage gender-selective abortions. Now, pro-lifers are using gender-selective abortions to assign fetuses personhood to stop abortions altogether.

But pro-lifers are not the ones assigning personhood to fetuses that are aborted because of their sex – abortive parents are.

These parents are not saying “this fetus is not a person and doesn’t deserve to live,” they are saying “if this fetus is a boy, it has value, and I will let it live.” Whether or not women are people is being decided by parents who are practicing gender-selective abortion and is being exploited by pro-life groups.

In a world where a woman’s personhood is being decided in the womb, how can she ever hope to achieve equality and respect in her life?

The key here is education. Ignoring the fact that Asian-Americans have sex-selective abortions will not make them go away. These families have Western educations and Western opportunities, yet they still choose boys over girls. The Asian-American communities need to be specifically targeted for education and outreach programs for women and girls.

How many children a family has is a personal issue, but once you decide to become a parent, you don’t get to decide who that little person will be. You don’t get to decide what job they will have, what their hobbies will be, or what their gender is. Even if parents sex-select for a boy, there is no guarantee that he will identify as a male when he grows up. There is no guarantee that he will marry or take care of his parents in their old age. Gender selection, for boys or girls, forces patriarchal societal norms on all children before they are even born and needs to stop.