A few years ago, while visiting a small, prosperous city a few hours from Changsha, in China’s Hunan Province, I paused outside of a primary school to snap a photo of grandparents eagerly awaiting the afternoon bell and the grandchildren who would emerge from the school gate. A few minutes later, when that bell rang, a flood of boys emerged, enough to convince me and several other companions that we had happened upon a boy’s school. It was only later, over lunch, that we were told that, in fact, the school was co-ed.
Mara Hvistendahl describes a similar experience in her important new book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. One afternoon, in the county of Suining, in Northern Jiangsu Province, she watches as a disproportionate number of boys emerge from a co-ed school. The difference in our experiences is that Mara has the data to explain the phenomenon: in 2007, shortly before her visit to Suining, she reports in Unnatural Selection that there were 152 boys born for every 100 girls in the county. The naturally occurring ratio is 105 boys to 100 girls (and anything over 107 boys is biologically impossible).
For as long as I’ve been in China, a range of causes have been posited for this dangerous imbalance, none of which is more popular among foreigners than female infanticide. Hvistendahl, a reporter to her bones (she is now a Beijing-based Asia correspondent for Science), dismisses such theories as condescending, at best, and instead digs into the data and reveals a far more compelling and disturbing explanation: gender imbalance is a byproduct of economic development. As a nation grows more wealthy, more and more people have access to the tools – ultrasound machines and elective abortion – necessary to choose boys over girls.
Mara is a very good friend of mine (we even attended the same high school), and I had the privilege of chatting with her about this book while she was in the process of reporting and writing it. That was interesting: I remember, quite clearly, when she started encountering data suggesting that abortion rights groups in the West were consciously downplaying the role of elective abortion in creating skewed sex ratios in China and other countries (including – and this is critical – countries populated by Caucasians).
Mara is adamantly in favor of abortion rights, and I could see she was uncomfortable with this data. And yet, to her everlasting credit as a journalist, she followed the story, anyway, and, along the way, uncovered important material regarding how population control activists in the West were critical to promoting abortion in Asia – and even in pushing along research into the sex determination techniques that ultimately yielded sex selective abortion.
When I asked Mara if she’d be willing to do a Shanghai Scrap Q&A (this will be her second; the first, on the topic of Chinese computer hackers, is still relevant, and still available here), I told her that I’d like to cover the material related to abortion and population control. Characteristically, she didn’t hesitate.
Scrap: Toward the end of the sections describing the reluctance of the United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA] and other reproductive rights groups to take action on sex selection you write: “After decades of fighting for a woman’s right to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, it is difficult to turn around and point out that women are abusing that right – that in union with population pressures and technology, choice has been perverted.” I wonder if you can expand on what you mean, precisely, by that last clause – “choice has been perverted.”
Hvistendahl: The gender imbalance has huge ramifications for women as a group: 163 million, the number of females missing from Asia’s population, is more than the entire female population of the United States. We’re talking about half of humanity being reduced to less than half of humanity. How is that not issue number one for groups that work to defend the rights of women?
Because unfortunately feminist and reproductive rights groups are in what Joseph Chamie, the former head of the United Nations Population Division, calls the “abortion bind.” The abortion debate in the West—and particularly in the United States— has been framed around the notion of choice. That idea worked well thirty years ago, when it helped shift the political discussion from one about when life begins toward one about a women’s right to control her pregnancy.
But choice now includes this whole range of options that are essentially frivolous consumer decisions. Now women can also choose not to have a girl. The fertility clinics that offer high-tech sex selection tout the notion of choice when explaining that parents can screen embryos for sex during in-vitro fertilization. And we’re not very far from the day when parents may be able to choose the eye color or hair color of their future child.
All of these developments demand an updating of the rhetoric surrounding abortion rights. There’s an urgent need to reframe the abortion debate around something other than choice. Bioethicists are starting to distinguish between the rights of a pregnant woman and a right of her future child to determine his or her own future (i.e. not to have gender roles or other expectations foisted on him or her from before birth).
That’s an approach that preserves the right to abortion and yet allows the left to say, once and for all, that sex selection is wrong. But aside from a few groups – Our Bodies Ourselves and Generations Ahead – feminists in the West have generally been slow to catch up.
Scrap: While reading the book, there were a few times when I sensed your emotions coming to the fore. Of these, none was quite so powerful as the passages leading up to a description of a mostly female church service in the Chinese town of Suining, in northern Jiangsu province, where the sex ratio is highly skewed.
A few paragraphs in advance of it, you provided readers with one of the book’s most jarring conclusions: “Reproductive rights activists often blame men for sex selection … [A]cross China and India, across South Korea and Vietnam and Azerbaijan, the decision to abort is most often made by a woman – either the pregnant woman herself or her mother-in-law, who has a vested interest in her son’s offspring … ” As a feminist, I wonder if you could describe the process by which you came to that conclusion, and why it – the female mediated discrimination against female children – hasn’t become a feminist issue.
Hvistendahl: To some extent I think it’s just easier to blame domineering men —or the one-child policy, or any other number of external factors that have been named as causes of the sex ratio imbalance. Acknowledging that women are making these decisions themselves is much more complex.
Again it comes back to that notion of choice. Reproductive rights organizations tend to argue that sex selection exists because of entrenched gender discrimination, and the way to prevent it and balance out the sex ratio at birth in China and other countries is to focus on discrimination as the root cause—and funnel resources toward things like education and job opportunities for women. Well, it turns out that the sex ratio at birth is very skewed among educated women in India, while among illiterate women is close to balanced.
The same holds true for China to some degree: sex selection is happening not in poor western provinces but in booming second-tier cities in the east. Liao Li, the Suining women who took me to the church service, had aborted two female fetuses, and at some point she said, look, this is about gaining face—about earning respect from other people in the community.
[Below, a male-dominated coed classroom in Suining. Photo courtesy of Mara Hvistendahl]
I’m sure there are men who pressure their wives into aborting female fetuses, but my conversations with women revolved much more around things like face and social standing. On some level, sex selection abortion is prompted by a basic human craving for status—a craving to which women are just as susceptible as men.
To be honest, I struggled with how to tell this part of the story. As a feminist, I was wary of placing too much blame on women for perpetuating gender discrimination. But I’m a journalist as well, and if a strong, independent Chinese woman tells me that she aborted two female fetuses and assures it was her decision, I’m going to report it.
Scrap: You are an adamant supporter of abortion rights – you make that clear in the prologue, and imply it throughout the text – and yet, from our conversations while you were writing the book, I sense that your feelings about abortion went through an evolution of sorts during the research and writing of the book. I wonder if you couldn’t say something about what it was like to go through the process of reporting this material, and your feelings – as a reporter, and a “civilian” – as you did that. Did it change your outlook regarding reproductive rights? Did it change anything?
Hvistendahl: Reporting the book didn’t change my fundamental support for a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. I supported abortion rights when I started the book and I still support them. But I did come to a deeper understanding of just how different the context surrounding abortion is in Asia today. Chinese abortion clinics advertise on prime-time television and offer discounts to students. That’s in stark contrast to the United States, where many women live several hours’ drive from the nearest clinic, and when they arrive have to put up with protesters and brave harassment just to terminate a pregnancy.
Cultures in both East and West have had debates over when life begins, and I don’t know that there’s any place on earth where settling that has been easy. But today we’re at very, very different places when it comes to how accessible and available abortion is—and how it’s used.
[Below, two online Chinese advertisements for abortion, courtesy of Mara Hvistendahl. One advertises “painless abortion.”]
Scrap: The story of how sex selection became an acceptable means of population control in the developing world is, in many ways, a story of how white men formulated and supported often brutal policies to control the darker skinned populations of developing countries. To what extent do you think that colonialist and racist attitudes played a role in the approaches to population control adopted in the developing world?
Hvistendahl: Racism definitely played a role in the population control movement, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that movement arose in the 1950s, as colonies around the world were gaining independence and Western powers were losing their grip on the developing world.
But there were other pressures at play as well. People around the world were living longer, and the United Nations Population Division had begun issuing population projections that suggested what the effect of all those extra years of life would be. Many in the West—environmentalists as well as McCarthyites—feared the global population would spiral out of control.
One thing that these various camps shared was a tendency to think of population in the abstract and forget that people are individuals, with rights that need to be safeguarded. In the 1960s, as the population control movement picked up steam, a number of prominent people called for perfecting a quick and easy method of sex selection. (I detail what happened here in my book.) And yes, perhaps it was a bit easier to entertain that idea because the big targets were distant countries like China and India—and because at the time very few women and people of color held positions of power in the population control movement.
That said, an end-justifies-the-means approach to population control was later embraced by governments in Asia—by China, obviously, but also by India, Vietnam, South Korea, and Singapore. In 1975 Delhi’s All-India Institute of Medical Sciences introduced sex selective abortion, offering free determination tests to hundreds of poor women and then tracking whether they aborted based on the sex of the fetus. The doctors who wrote up the results in the journal Indian Pediatrics discussed the undertaking as a population control exercise.
A similar study was carried out at a hospital in Liaoning province, in China, that same year. But really the linking of sex selection and population control was an idea India and China owed to the United States.
Scrap: Focusing on China – it’s almost accepted gospel, for those not familiar with the issue, that infanticide, the one-child policy, and abandonment account for the country’s skewed sex ratio, and that abortion is only part of the mix. Yet you not only object to that formulation, you seem to imply that it’s both condescending and a gross distortion that obscures the real issues. Could you give a sense of how important each of those facts is, in fact, to China’s gender issues, and why they are only a small part of the overall picture?
Hvistendahl: That is the typical explanation given for China’s skewed sex ratio at birth, and it’s amazing how consistently it crops up in reports by news organizations and NGOs. I think abandonment is on the radar in the West because of our history of adopting children from China. But it is a relatively small part of the story in 2011, and infanticide happens very rarely today. Skewed sex ratios at birth are now found in many countries with no tradition of infanticide and no one-child policy. By and large, the gap is the result of sex selective abortion.
I think these local or cultural explanations persist in part because they’re easy. It’s easier to say this is a culture that has a tradition of killing girls than it is to interrogate our own role in bringing sex selection to Asia. Too often Western narratives about China explain what happens there as either the product of a monolithic government or an immutable past—as if China were not home to the same complexity and deep, varied history as the West.
I do find that condescending—especially when Americans are happily screening for sex during in-vitro fertilization. In the book I profile the Los Angeles fertility clinics that offer embryo screening. Ultimately I see a lot of similarities between what’s happening in China and the sort of consumer eugenics now on offer in the United States.
A free excerpt from Unnatural Selection is available on Mara’s website, here, or at the book’s facebook page, here. Another excerpt, “How Ultrasound Changed the Human Sex Ratio,” was published last week at Scientific American. Mara is currently on a US book tour promoting the book; a complete itinerary of appearances is available here. And finally, the book is available at bookstores all over creation, including HERE. Highly recommended.