The Gendercide Crisis in Asia

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Ilya, has this takeaway from our debate over sex-selective abortion:

I lean pro-choice, but I doff my hat to the pro-life camp for this deft maneuver. They have demonstrated that it is logically impossible to be both “pro-choice” and “anti-discrimination.” Why is this the case? Because “choice” and “discrimination” are the same thing.

But pro-life advocates are also put in a difficult spot, as Noah Berlatsky explains in a 2013 Atlantic post about a new documentary, It’s a Girl, which investigated the high rates of sex-selective abortion and infanticide in China and India. The film’s trailer presents a shocking finding: that those two countries “eliminate more girls [every year] than the number of girls born in America every year”:

Here’s Berlatsky:

In the film, Dr. Puneet Bedi argues that ultrasound and abortion has increased the ease of gendercide for wealthier people, and so has created unprecedented gender imbalances (140 boys to 100 girls, according to the film). Other sources, though, dispute that technology has made that much of a difference, arguing that before abortion, infanticide was simply more widespread. Either way, though, the point remains that the root of the problem is clearly not abortion per se, but widespread sexism and sexual violence—which puts pro-lifers, with their often explicitly anti-feminist rhetoric, in an awkward position.

A reader today makes a similar point:

If people are worried about sex-selective (or other kinds of selective—race, disability, etc.) abortion in America, maybe they should concentrate on how our society devalues women, people of color, and the disabled, and ask what forces might cause someone to make that choice in the first place. The fact that someone would abort an otherwise wanted pregnancy on these bases is a result of the inherent sexism, racism, and other prejudices in our society. Deal with the cause instead of obstructing women’s access to necessary healthcare.

Another reader tries to imagine a scenario in which banning sex-selective abortion would be beneficial to society at large:

Abortion is legal in the U.S. on the premise that a woman cannot be forced to carry a pregnancy during the first trimester because her choice (under her right to privacy) to NOT be pregnant outweighs any interest the state has in regulating her reproduction. Given that it denies a first-trimester fetus the most basic human right possible (the right to life), Roe v Wade thus strongly implies that the fetus has no enforceable rights during the first trimester. That being the case, it’s hard to see how any particular fetus can have a Constitutional right to not be being aborted based on its particular characteristics.   

Thus, regulation of selective abortion would have to be based on some compelling state interest other than the rights of an individual fetus. I can imagine such a case against sex-selective abortion: a balance of the sexes being a highly desirable trait of a stable society. It’s a bit of stretch, and extremely difficult to enforce, but imaginable.

It’s less of a stretch for countries such as China and India—and Pakistan; here’s a 2012 Atlantic post from Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellman entitled “Abandoned, Aborted, or Left for Dead: These Are the Vanishing Girls of Pakistan.”