The Sex Test, Abortion, and the War Against Girls

It is one of the cruelest ironies of the modern abortion movement that while the movement advanced under the banner of women’s rights, it is unborn girls, in monstrously disproportionate number, who have been aborted.

If you must read only one thing this weekend, it should be Jonathan Last’s book review of “Unnatural Selection” by Mara Hvistendahl in today’s Wall Street Journal.  Hvistendahl’s book treats the spread of sex-based abortion and the deleterious consequences for societies that systematically abort females.  Read it first for the statistics, which are gobsmacking.  The natural birthrate is 104-106 boys for every 100 girls.  Yet Hvistendahl — who is reflexively pro-choice, by the way — documents the wild disproportions abortion produces around the world:

Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, the number is 121—though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark. China’s and India’s populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107. But the imbalance is not only in Asia. Azerbaijan stands at 115, Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120…By Ms. Hvistendahl’s counting, there have been so many sex-selective abortions in the past three decades that 163 million girls, who by biological averages should have been born, are missing from the world.

What’s perhaps even more astonishing is what happens when parents try for the second, third or fourth time to give birth to a boy.  The increasing desperation of the parents is evident in the numbers:

Take South Korea. In 1989, the sex ratio for first births there was 104 boys for every 100 girls—perfectly normal. But couples who had a girl became increasingly desperate to acquire a boy. For second births, the male number climbed to 113; for third, to 185. Among fourth-born children, it was a mind-boggling 209 [boys for every girl]. Even more alarming is that people maintain their cultural assumptions even in the diaspora; research shows a similar birth-preference pattern among couples of Chinese, Indian and Korean descent right here in America.

This pattern began to take shape in the mid-1970s, when the development of amniocentesis made it possible to identify the sex of the child in the womb.  It started with the upper classes, who could easily afford the test, and who were more likely to abort the child if they knew it was a girl.  Then amniocentesis was replaced with the cheaper and less invasive ultrasound, and suddenly anyone who wanted to abort an unborn girl could do so.

The consequences of the disproportionate number of men are severe.  When there are 120 men for every 100 women, 20 men cannot marry.  Since the wealthy are more likely to find a bride, those 20 men will generally come from the lower classes.  As Last writes, “Unmarried men with limited incomes tend to make trouble. In Chinese provinces where the sex ratio has spiked, a crime wave has followed. Today in India, the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income but sex ratio.”  The surplus men also start looking to other nations for wives, causing the “mail order bride” business to boom, and they contribute to a dramatic rise in prostitution and sex trafficking.

As Last recognizes, the problem in part is the moral superficiality of the abortion movement’s emphasis on “choice.”  No person, we are told, can judge the choice that a woman makes to continue to discontinue her pregnancy.  It’s her choice, and that choice is sacrosanct and beyond judgment.  After all, if the object in the mother’s womb is really just an object, a clump of cells, then aborting the fetus is no more morally significant than throwing out a watermelon.  Yet the extraordinary consequences of the systematic aborting of girls, and the utter banality of the evil of sex-based abortion, points out just how destructive is the lie upon which the modern abortion movement has been built.  As I wrote of Kermit Gosnell, sex-based abortion is a canary in the mineshaft, showing us that the environment has been poisoned.  The piece concludes:

Despite the author’s intentions, “Unnatural Selection” might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of “choice.” For if “choice” is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against “gendercide.” Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s “mental health” requires it. Choice is choice. One Indian abortionist tells Ms. Hvistendahl: “I have patients who come and say ‘I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.'”

This is where choice leads. This is where choice has already led. Ms. Hvistendahl may wish the matter otherwise, but there are only two alternatives: Restrict abortion or accept the slaughter of millions of baby girls and the calamities that are likely to come with it.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Nathan Smith

    This underscores that choice is a matter of civic freedom. Societies that see this kind of sex selection are also those societies where women do not enjoy the full freedom and respect of men. One way to reduce the impact of sex selection would be to undermine one of the social causes: the disproportionate disadvantage that women have in the society.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I absolutely agree with this, Nathan, although I suspect those attitudes are not going to be eradicated especially quickly. It will certainly take decades, perhaps centuries in some places. I think we need other solutions for the short term.

      • Carlo Lancellotti


        your comment can be easily turned around. In the West the recognition of women rights followed after centuries of moral education about the nature and dignity of human beings. In the long term, the denial of such nature and dignity (as in the case of abortion) is bound to weaken also the status of women.

      • Witten

        The solution to women being devalued by a culture, is not to limit their freedom of action even more.

    • DaveM

      “This underscores that choice is a matter of civic freedom. Societies that see this kind of sex selection are also those societies where women do not enjoy the full freedom and respect of men.”

      How condescending of you. All choices are equal, but some choices are more equal than others, is it? On what possible moral basis do you dare judge the validity of another person’s choice?

  • Kevin Koperski

    This was actually a moderately decent article, but the point he successfully makes regarding the evils of gender selective abortion is lost when he tries to blame foreign abortion issues on the American pro-choice movement. “No person, we are told, can judge the choice that a woman makes to continue to discontinue her pregnancy. It’s her choice, and that choice is sacrosanct and beyond judgment.” Yes, that’s the argument here, where we value human freedom and fight for gender equality, but that argument never sees the light of day in many other countries. In the countries he mentions as the worst offenders, women do not share the same rights as men, especially when it comes to sex and reproduction. To assume that women are the primary decision makers behind these abortions is silly, and therefore blaming the problem on the women’s rights movement is absurd. Ironically, the gender ratio problem in those other countries will probably worsen and lengthen the struggle for gender equality, thereby exacerbating the gender selective abortion issues. Lose lose.

    And another thing… Infanticide, often gender specific, has been practiced throughout history, and still occurs (usually illegally) in places within both China and India. That practice has nothing to do with the “modern abortion movement”. It traces its origins to long standing traditions, cultures, and practices. Gender selective abortion is simply a more modern version of the same old traditions. I’m not defending it, but it highlights the fallacious nature of his argument.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Kevin, I think you’re mistaking the structure of the argument. I was not blaming the choice-rhetoric for this problem in the first place. I was blaming the practice of abortion — and then showing, in the light of the damage it’s causing, how shallow the choice rhetoric is and how insufficient to address the moral issues at hand here.

      I should also say, thought, that I was not blaming the American women’s rights movement, but the abortion ‘rights’ movement in whatever form it takes around the globe (although, as a point of fact, the argument advanced in support of abortion ‘rights’ overseas is remarkably similar to the argument that was advanced here, and women are legally — if not always culturally — equal in most of the societies I mentioned). So it doesn’t particularly matter whether men or women are the primary decision makers.

      And listen, infanticide is as old as human history. Early Christians were known for the practice of taking infants who were exposed and left for dead, or thrown in rivers (different cultures had different practices) and taking those children and raising them. Yes, gender-selective abortion affords the Chinese and Indians another way of doing what they have been doing for centuries. But infanticide is illegal now in both places, and if abortion were illegal in those places then there would not be a legal means of gender-selective elimination. So I hardly see how it points to anything fallacious. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, whether or not there’s another wrong thing people might do to achieve the same effect.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    Troubling on all sorts of levels.

  • Jenna

    Hello, Timothy!

    A friend of mine on Facebook posted this onto her page and whilst posting on her link I felt that I should include you in the conversation. 😉

    There are a couple of underlying questions/comments I had on your blog; Nathan (above) highlighted my perspective on cultural definitions of what women’s rights are.

    Another part of your blog that caused me to reflect/ponder was when you mentioned the ‘fate’ of the 20 men who supposedly wouldn’t marry. Specifically I am referring to your quoting of Last; “Unmarried men with limited incomes tend to make trouble.” The placement of unmarried as the first word provides emphasis on that instead of their limited income, which is a higher factor behind their deviant actions. I found this to be guiding the reader in a misleading manner.

    The second element (also related to the future of men): “When there are 120 men for everyone 100 women, 20 men cannot marry.” From my interpretation of your statement, there are 120 men and 100 women in a specific year (I’m assuming year, I don’t recall a specific time frame listed); does this account for people who marry older/younger people? Another element to examine is the perspectives different cultures have on marriage in general.

    Something else that I’d like to discuss with you further is your overall intent. Is your goal solely to get the information out there, or to help rally people to the cause of trying to get rid of abortions? If so, is it for moral or scientific/social factors (value of life vs. the effects of abortions [gender-specific] on society).

    I will most likely continue in following your blog; I look forward to future posts!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Jenna, for reading and commenting. A couple points. I believe “Unmarried” was the first word because the article was about sex-selection and the troubles this causes through imbalances in the population and how this effects marriage. I’m not sure how one would measure, in the case of unmarried poor men, whether it is their singleness or their poverty that causes more trouble — and of course they’re related. Men who marry tend to establish family units that fare better economically, and men who marry and have children are more deeply invested in their society, less likely to turn to crime or terrorism or etc. In any case, I wouldn’t vest too much of your criticism in the word order.

      The time-reference is typically per year, 120 men born in a given year for every 100 women. Since this refers to birth rates, not marriage rates, it doesn’t particularly matter the age of the people they marry, especially over time. It’s not going to make a significant statistical difference even if a few marry older women. In many cases, these disparities have persisted for decades now, and in some nations the children who were born in the midst of these disparities are now reaching adulthood and moving into or past marrying age.

      As for my intent, I am opposed to abortion due to moral, philosophical, theological and societal concerns.

      Again, many thanks.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    This is a horrifying trend- more than a trend, an epidemic, we’re talking decades already.

    I think Nathan Smith is right in his comment above- sex selection is a function of societies that disproportionately disadvantage women. As such, it’s depressing that Western groups working on female empowerment and bodily autonomy would praise or even encourage programs of this sort on the other side of the world where a male-dominated collectivist culture could only warp their intentions. I’d hardly call a social structure where females as such are unwanted and unvalued a feminist utopia, or such abortions the outcome of “choice”.

    I don’t know how much actual influence the West had in crafting the practices in these Asian countries, but either way this speaks to the danger of trying to graft one cultural context onto another, more unstable one. A recent example would be the Ugandan anti-gay legislation that some in the evangelical community encouraged until it became clear how deadly extreme it might turn out.

    But back to abortion, as alarming as sex selection is (as a symptom of cultural misogyny, as unchecked social engineering, and as the harbinger of violence and upheaval that “surplus men” have historically presaged), the United States is in a vastly different situation. In the Asian countries discussed, abortion is a tool of the rich; here, more than 80% of abortions are obtained by women in households making less than the national median income. In Asia, abortion is a tool of the married; here, almost 75% of abortions are obtained by never-married or divorced women. In Asia, sex selection is the driving force of abortion to the point that we see the disturbing demographic data Ms Hvistendahl has described; here, 99% of abortions take place before week 20 and 95% by week 15, while the gender of a fetus can only be reliably determined after week 20.

    I realize you aren’t claiming sex selection is an issue in the United States, but you are explicitly linking Western and Chinese and Indian reasons for abortion, and as one (reluctantly pro-choice) who views abortion more as a symptom of larger social ills than as an inherent evil in itself, I think it is imperative to focus on the different social contexts in which abortions are sought, and that fighting to outlaw the supply-side of abortion without replacing the demand for abortion (in the American context) with ready contraception, non-discriminatory adoption services, suitable healthcare, childcare, welfare, education, etc, will end up being counterproductive and cruel. (Sorry to go on so long, but as you may have noticed, this supply/demand abortion issue is kind of a bugaboo for me.)

    • Hal

      Any way one looks at the issue, it is the killing of a human life, regardless of a the reason for the abortion. We all know that the “fetus” is a baby. We have all seen ultrasounds and know, within our own spirits that its a human life. It isn’t a result of society’s “social ills.”

    • NateDean

      I agree with what you said about working on the demand side of abortions, but I think you might have missed the point of the article. Fundamentally, if women have the right to choose whether or not to end a life in their womb, sex-baised abortions are a legitimate outcome.
      There really is no ground for saying that the parent can decide on the basis of baby with down-syndrom, but can’t on the basis of sex (or money, circumstance etc.). Both are repulsive, in my opinion, but natural outcomes of an abortion ready culture.
      It might be a stretch, but you could probably also argue that a society that determines that ending the pre-born life of a poor, under-fed, under-priveledged, unwanted kid is acceptable is the height of a classist bigoted society. Arguing that it abortion is a necessary evil, is in effect arguing that the life of a kid whose drug-addled mom doesn’t want her isn’t as valuable as the life of a wealthy couple’s baby boy. We may not be as sexist in the US, but it sure looks like we are an equal part classist and bigoted, in that we encourage a practice that undermines the strength and ability of our lower income level demographics. Either way a society loses.
      These are just my first thoughts on this perspective on abortion, so I am not bull-headed about it, just saying I don’t see an answer for the argument at first glance. It is an interesting discussion for sure. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts. I might be way off, it wouldn’t be the first time 🙂

      • Kubrick’s Rube

        Thanks for the response. You raise some points I’d like to address, and hopefully this will clarify my first comment.

        “Fundamentally, if women have the right to choose whether or not to end a life in their womb, sex-based abortions are a legitimate outcome.”

        But in the countries where women have a real choice- as opposed to the countries described in this book, where women are either subject to state-mandated birth limits or where women are subservient to men and do not have the final decision on such matters- we don’t see many sex-based abortions.

        Most pro-choicers are not in favor of truly unrestricted abortion, and as long as 99% of abortions take place (by choice and more and more these days by law) in the first 20 weeks, sex selection is not possible.

        (More to come- the comment system says my response is too long.)

      • Kubrick’s Rube

        Part 2:

        “[Y]ou could probably also argue that a society that determines that ending the pre-born life of a poor, under-fed, under-privileged, unwanted kid is acceptable is the height of a classist bigoted society.”

        Absolutely, but only to the extent that it is society and not the individuals involved doing the determining. And this is the crux of my point: in the US, we are encouraging poor people to abort- by not focusing on unwanted pregnancies, by not providing adequate sex education and access to contraception, through inadequate healthcare, childcare, welfare, education, by limiting adoption options by discriminating against same-sex couples- that’s how we are undermining “the strength and ability of our lower income level demographics.”

        I can’t recommend strongly enough the book Red Families vs Blue Families, about the interplay of cultural issues and economics and the areas for compromise:

  • mcurt2s

    Do you remember those commercials where they showed a nearly emptied plaza and then added a few people and a few more, and then said “Leukemia: We’re closing in on a killer”?

    That emptied plaza is what I see when I think about abortion, and it’s mainly emptied of women and blacks (13% of the population but 37% of those aborted in the US).

    I wonder if it would be legal to do an anti-abortion commercial that borrows these images, and one that goes even further in crediting crisis pregnancy centers with “Closing in on a Killer”?

  • In Asian culture Males are more valued than females; In Western Culture Women are more valued than Males (just ask any progressive feminist). Progressive feminist aside- Should we not celebrate this cultural diversity? Who is anyone to say India and China are wrong for their rich cultural heritage that has fostered diverse male favored practices?

    For anyone outside a given culture to condemn another’s cultural practice just reeks of self righteous imperialism. Just as the British Imperial Conquers had no right to stop the Hindu practice of Sati (The custom in India in which the widow was burnt – sometimes voluntary, other times not – to ashes on her dead husband’s pyre), no one has any right to say what another’s cultural or individual choice should be – especially when it comes to a girl child in a woman’s womb.

    Otherwise, one may get the regressive non-diverse Judeo-Christian idea that all human life, male or female, whether inside or outside the womb, has intrinsic value and is created in the image of God. Heaven Forbid such thinking!

    On the plus side however, as the supply of females goes down the demand for females will go up. Hence, the value of females shall be sure to increase in these progressive & diverse cultures. So the progressive Femi-Nazis have that going for them.

  • dmoran

    This is not an abortion problem, but a status of women and girls problem. The solution is not to outlaw abortion, but to improve the the way societies treat and value females. Cultures that value women and permit abortion do not have the proportion problem. For them, it makes no difference whether a baby is a boy or a girl because they both have the same opportunities.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Debbie, I appreciate the comment, but I disagree. While I wholeheartedly agree that we need to work toward societies where women are valued equally with men, that is a process that will take decades, if not centuries. In the meantime the misproportion persists and will continue to wreak havoc. Are you not at all moved by the tens of millions of unborn girls who are eliminated just because they’re girls — and who will continue to be if we wait until Korea (e.g.) values women equally?

  • DaveM

    Abortion is built upon the lie that a fetus is not a human being. Everyone knows this is a lie. You know it is a lie. The millions of sex-selection abortions are based on the fact that the fetus is a girl.

    How did we come to this place where we believe it is right that one person can, at just their own personal say-so, decide that another human being should live or die? To make matters worse, we limit this power to exactly the point in life when one person holds all the power, and the other is helpless. How ignoble! We don’t even wait until the child is old enough to defend itself. Quick, kill it while you can!

    Abortion is utterly, irretrievably evil. It is the ultimate act of tyranny. I am appalled that the very people who pride themselves on championing human rights are the ones who are championing the right to kill another person. If ever there was a moral contradiction, this is it.