Mara Hvistendahl's new essay in Foreign Policy about sex-selective abortions in Asia is keeping the debate alive about the West's role in promoting policies that have resulted in sharp gender gap in Asia. In her new book Unnatural Selection, Hvistendahl suggests that the West has promoted sex selection, in part through the spread of ultrasound technology and liberalized abortion policies. Her thesis has drawn in a host of pundits, including Think Progress blogger Matt Yglesias, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins struck early, accusing Hvistendahl of blaming science on the gender gap, instead of blaming the "cultural and religious practices that despise and discriminate against women in the first place." He posed the question to Hvistendahl "Why do we blame science for offering a method to do bad things?" and she responded on her blog:
I am responding to allegations made by Richard Dawkins that my book is critical of science. It is not... What do I actually say in my book? I point out that early research into sex determination techniques like amniocentesis and ultrasound went ahead for various reasons... But beginning in the 1960s a separate group of scientists proposed pushing along research into sex selection--not simply using existing techniques, but actively funding new work--for a reason that had nothing to do with avoiding disease or improving maternal health. These scientists were interested in sex selection’s significance in the developing world
She goes on to explain Western involvement in promoting sex-selection in the developing world, such as when the Population Council sent representatives to India to found a department of reproductive physiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, "which would later inaugurate sex selection trials resulting in the abortion of hundreds of female fetuses." She concludes, "While Western science is not to blame for the disappearance of tens of millions of females from the global population, some Westerners did play a role in bringing sex selection to Asia. It is this role I hope we can discuss." The idea that West played a role in promoting sex-selective abortions intrigued the Times' pro-life columnist Ross Douthat, who riffed off the book on his Monday column, saying that sex-selective abortion puts pro-choice liberals in a difficult position.
Notwithstanding the depredations of the Chinese politburo, most of the abortions were (and continue to be) uncoerced. The American establishment helped create the problem, but now it's metastasizing on its own: the population-control movement is a shadow of its former self, yet sex selection has spread inexorably with access to abortion, and sex ratios are out of balance from Central Asia to the Balkans to Asian-American communities in the United States.
This places many Western liberals, Hvistendahl included, in a distinctly uncomfortable position. Their own premises insist that the unborn aren't human beings yet, and that the right to an abortion is nearly absolute.
Douthat concludes saying that "the tragedy of the world's 160 million missing girls isn't that they're 'missing,'" the word many have been using. "The tragedy is that they're dead." The provocative line sparked a response from Think Progress's pro-choice blogger Matt Yglesias who invited Douthat to take part in a thought experiment: what if the sex-selection process took place at the contraceptive stage and women could simply choose a "boy pill" or a "girl pill."
On joint Douthatian and Yglesian principles, nobody's being killed here. But I think that if we found out that use of the "boy" pill was extremely widespread, this might still legitimately worry us for three kinds of reasons. One is that widespread use of the boy pill would express the inegalitarian idea that men are more valuable than women. A second is that widespread use of the boy pill would reflect the existence of ongoing inequities in society that make it the case that a male child is more valuable than a female child. The third is that there are plausible reasons to believe that even a relatively small gender gap in the population could have problematic macro-scale consequences for society.
As it happens, sex-selective medical intervention overwhelmingly takes the form of abortions. But there are plenty of reasons you might be concerned about the phenomenon that don't have to do with abortion specifically.
Earlier today, Douthat responded to the Yglesisas rebuttal:
I wasn’t suggesting that pro-choice liberals have no reason to be “concerned about the phenomenon” of 160 million missing girls. (I would hope that they’re concerned!) My point was that the story of sex-selective abortion creates more difficulties — both intellectually and, I would submit, emotionally — for abortion-rights supporters than it does for those of us on the pro-life side of the argument. For one thing, it presents a policy problem: If the right to abortion is a fundamental human liberty, how do you address sex selection without infringing dramatically on the right to privacy?
As the debate between Douthat and Yglesias will likely continue, the message of Hvistendahl's book continues to spread as she writes in various outlets. In her Monday Foreign Policy essay, Hvistendahl was careful to depict herself as unaligned with conservatives or Christians in the U.S., criticizing both pro-life and pro-choice groups as being overly-focused on domestic issues of abortion. "As American politicians argue over whether to cut Planned Parenthood's U.S. funding and the Christian right drives through bans on sex-selective abortion at the state level, the effects of three decades of sex selection elsewhere in the world are becoming alarmingly apparent, she wrote:
Four decades ago, Western advocacy of sex selection yielded tragic results. But if we continue to ignore that legacy and remain paralyzed by heated U.S. abortion politics, we're compounding that mistake. Indian public health activist George, indeed, says waiting to act is no longer an option: If the world does "not see ten years ahead to where we're headed, we're lost."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.