Unnatural Selection: Mara Hvistendahl on the shrinking female population

Originally aired on The Sunday Edition (18/12/11)

Shortly after she began her studies in Beijing 11 years ago, writer Mara Hvistendahl noticed something strange: everywhere she looked there were far more men than women. She became intrigued. Everywhere she travelled in Asia and India, the same images — many more men than women. She decided to find out why.

What she reveals in her book Unnatural Selection is that the world is missing millions of women because of gender selection and gender abortion. In a world of misogyny, boy babies are much preferred to girl babies and thanks to the spread of Western technology, male birth can be assured.

It has been called "gendercide" and "consumer eugenics," and it is an ironic and troubling consequence of women gaining control over their reproductive lives. Hvistendahl estimates that as many as 160 million girls have been lost: more than the female population of the United States. These practices and the gender imbalance that follows lead to social problems such as trafficking in women, and even child marriages.There is also the suggestion that so many more men in the world, and therefore more testosterone, will lead to a rise in violent crime.

Hvistendahl is an award-winning writer and journalist, specializing in the intersection of science, culture and policy. She has spent half of the past decade in China, reporting on everything from archeology to China's space program. She spoke to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright over the weekend about the alarming trend she has written about in her new book.

Hvistendahl explains that the alarming trend first started as "the result of fetal ultrasound scanning becoming available, beginning in the early 1980s." Women in East Asia and Eastern Europe started using this technology to scan for the sex of the baby during their second trimester, and aborting the fetus if it turned out to be female. Almost 30 years later, that sort of detection is possible even earlier in a pregnancy.

Hvistendahl noticed a striking sex ratio imbalance soon after she started working as a freelance journalist in China. "The sex ratio imbalance is something that's everywhere. If you just visit an elementary school in China and look out at a classroom, you'll see many more boys than girls," she said. Does the imbalance have anything to do with China's notorious "one-child" policy? "It does play a role," she said. "But we see similar trends in India, and other countries with no population policy. Women are having far fewer children than they did 50 or 60 years ago, and that puts pressure on them to make sure that their one child, or one of two children, is a boy."

The number that Hvistendahl cites, 160 million, is a figure from 2005. "It's from a demographer looking at the Asian population at that point and then looking at what it should be if the continent had a more natural sex ratio. And that was the gap," she said. "So we can't says that ALL of those were the direct result of sex selected abortion, but certainly a lot were."

The book explores the dark potential of a world with fewer women, in which women are more likely to be oppressed. Sex selection also adds a complicated layer to the abortion debate, already a hot-button political issue in the western world. And sex selection may be only the beginning: what happens when technology allows parents-to-be to select other traits like eye colour or intelligence?

Ultimately, this is a topic very close to Hvistendahl. "As a woman, I find the fact that my gender, my group, is being reduced deeply disturbing, and that was initially what propelled me to write this book," she said. "Not only are fewer being born today, but for the women who are born, in many communities they're at a greater risk. A world in which there are fewer women is not a great world."

unnatural selection.jpg

Unnatural Selection

by Mara Hvistendahl

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

"'Lianyungang, a booming port city, has China's most extreme gender ratio for children under four: 163 boys for every 100 girls. These numbers don''t seem terribly grim, but in ten years, the skewed sex ratio will pose a colossal challenge. By the time those children reach adulthood, their generation will have twenty-four million more men than women. The prognosis for China's neighbors is no less bleak..."

Read more at Publicaffairs.