In Asia today, upwards of 160 million females are missing — more than the entire female population of the United States. Their disappearance is the result of sex-selective abortion, a practice especially common in Asia and Eastern Europe in which female fetuses are aborted in favor of male babies.
Societies prefer boys to girls for various reasons. In India, the obligation to provide an abundant dowry for a daughter can put economic strain on a family. China's infamous one-child policy, along with traditions in which sons carry on the family line and care for parents in old age, also give parents an incentive to have male children. Such cultural beliefs have been around for centuries, but their modern collision with the twin technologies of ultrasound and abortion have enabled and accelerated an alarming trend in sex-selective abortions.
Sex-selective abortion is a human right crisis of tremendous magnitude. It contributes to the buying and selling of brides, sex trafficking and abuse; ironically, the demand for women can actually decrease their status in countries where they are scarce. Men are also prone to commit more crimes and be more violent in societies where they outnumber women.
Journalist Mara Hvistendahl examines the problem and its implications in her recently-released book "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men." Response to the book has been largely positive, but Hvistendahl, a pro-choice liberal, has been irked by some conservative reviews of her book, especially that of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.
In his column, Douthat calls out Hvistendahl for refusing to acknowledge aborted children as the real victims. He states outright what he says Hvistendahl is unwilling to admit: "The tragedy of the world's 160 million missing girls isn't that they're 'missing.' The tragedy is that they're dead."
Hvistendahl responds in an essay on Slate.com that the real victims are not fetuses but women who are impacted by the adverse effects of sex selection. She makes a distinction between abortion and sex-selective abortion, and accuses the pro-life movement of opportunistically twisting her argument.
The issue has clearly galvanized both sides in the abortion debate. This paper has long opposed abortion except in cases of rape, incest or life of the mother, but we also firmly oppose devaluation of and discrimination against women. On the issue of sex-selective abortion, it seems clear that both camps have a point: women and unborn children are all certainly victims of this abhorrent practice, and any effort to curb it must take both into account.
First, the West must stop extolling abortion as a cure-all for problems in the developing world. Hvistendahl chronicles the role of the U.N. and other global organizations in promoting abortion as a method of population control during the 1960s and 1970s. This was utterly unconscionable, and the ensuing problems associated with sex-selective abortion are direct, if unintended, effects of this policy.
But this alone will not stem the tide of sex-selective abortions. The root cause of sex-selective abortion is discriminatory cultural beliefs and practices that must also be addressed.
Governments and other organizations should mount a sustained campaign to emphasize the value of girls, women and mothers; encourage female education; abolish discriminatory laws and customs; censure hospitals and clinics with uneven birth ratios; get women involved in public life; and build a culture of respect for life and human dignity. They must also take serious action on women's issues including prostitution and human trafficking.
These, at least, are things on which people on both sides of the abortion debate should be able to agree.