Sex Selective Abortions, Missing Women, and the PRENDA Bill

Because of gender bias and sex discrimination there are an estimated 160,000,000 girls and women missing from the planet today. This isn’t man-bashing or “victim feminism” by the way. It’s just a documented statement of fact. By virtually any measure this is dystopian.

One hundred and sixty million is staggering number to absorb. It is roughly all the women in the United States…missing.

The result of this loss is a dangerously skewed sex ratio.  This imbalance has global consequences that no country can avoid with a dismissive “not our problem, it doesn’t happen here.”

The global problem with the gender imbalance that we now face is not technology. Nor is it, as social conservatives would have it, women making “immoral choices” about how to use it. It is deeply entrenched sexism. The immorality in question isn’t in the use of tools – like ultrasounds and abortion – to select babies, it is in the use of misogyny to inform culture and mandate birth preferences for boys. In order to address the sex ratio imbalance we have to acknowledge and challenge the root causes, namely dehumanization and elimination of female humans.  Yesterday it was drowning newborn girls, today it is spinning them out of potential birth, tomorrow it will be something new. Abortion, nuanced as it is, is just a stop on the way. Anything short of addressing girls’ and women’s inequality as humans is an ineffectual and more often than not, patriarchal Band-Aid and will do nothing. It’s the proverbial rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. That is why this morning’s cynical Republican indignation over the US House of Representatives’s rejection of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act is self-serving and disingenuous. Girls and women wouldn’t need so much sanctimonious and hypocritical “protecting” if they had cultural equality and human dignity.

In the United States, Gallup has conducted a poll every year since 1941 that reveals a persistent preference here for boy babies – particularly among men. Other sources, regarding adoption and abortion studies, seem to refute these findings. Take that preference, rooted in devaluating the female half of humanity, and add to it overwhelming social and economic reasons to prefer boys, particularly widespread in Asia, and you end up with these facts:

    • The unmodified biological sex ratio worldwide is 102-106 males to every 100 females born.
    • In India, ratios vary, but in the northern part of the country the ratio as high as 132 boys to 100 girls in some places. In a pattern distinctly different from China’s the ratios in India are more imbalanced among well-educated, more affluent urban dwellers.
    • In China the ratios vary, higher in rural areas than urban, but in Beijing the ratio is 118 boys to 100 girls, in Shanghai 120 boys to 100 girls.
    • In former Soviet Bloc countries like Azerbaijan (115 to 100), Georgia (118 to 100), the numbers are equally grave.
    • 160,000,000 Missing females on a radically masculinized planet.

And, yes, men and women are making the choice to sex select for males. I use that word provisionally – it’s impossible to freely and autonomously “choose” when your existence is filtered from birth through patriarchal cultural norms that mean you experience your gender as a form a trauma. When your very nature is considered defective it skews your perspective.

Why Has It Happened?

The quickest answer is that cultures worldwide value males, societally and economically, more than females. Male offspring are more valuable and sex selection is the earliest manifestation of this bias. What begins as a way of controlling the gender of a baby ends up being the way you assign or deprive a lifetime of women’s rights in a society. The more complicated answer involves scaffolds of legal, economics, religious and societal structures – often property-related – that make having girls undesirable and sanction their disappearance. The reasons why some cultures aggressively eliminate females and others, equally patriarchal, don’t are elusive and complicated.

The Problems We Face

There are lots of things to worry about in regards to a male dominated dystopia. I have more than a niggling belief that in a world where violence is pervasive and girls are married without consenttattooed with bar codes and sold being a rare commodity in an increasingly violent world will not result in a beneficial, radical new world order.

In immediate terms, bearing sons is a matter of practical daily survival for millions of women already. Even if she is not killed for giving birth to a girl, for a woman living in a society where bearing a boy is more important than she is the pressure to have a boy yields a terrible burden on her life, her body, her health and her other children. She is physically abused and risks far too many pregnancies in her attempts to meet her boy quota.

For her existing, unwanted girl children, the situation is dire, both before and after the birth of a brother. Cultures that have no ethical or moral problems with the wholesale elimination of females, where girls and women are not a valued, make little investment in their well-being. Girls are chronically under-cared for medically, under nourished, underclothed and undereducated. Violence against girls and women, alreadypandemic, will escalate. Trafficking, forcible marriage, importation of women (willing or unwilling) bride sharing, pressure on younger and younger girls to marry and marry more than one man will all continue to increase.

For boys and men the ramifications are clear. Just to begin – not enough women and increased violence.China and India have at least 60 million more young men (called “bare branches” in China) than available women to marry. That’s the equivalent of Japan or Mexico having no girls and women AT ALL and needing to find some.

Given the fact that sex ratios and global security are inextricably linked, this imbalance creates the ideal circumstances for increased violence and aggression, risk-taking, political instability and militarism during the next 50 years.


Fighting entrenched discriminatory practices is hard, but not impossible. Pockets of intense governmental intervention have yielded a return to biological sex ratio norms. But local efforts will not successfully challenge pervasive, millennia-old habits. Multi-pronged approaches, including changing laws, proving the value of daughters, improving education, creating incentives – like pension plans for families with daughters – need to be undertaken systematically and with cohesion. Five UN agencies have worked together to produce an interagency statement and guidelines for globally addressing the problem,

In the US, the sex selection and abortion debate is predictably complex and polarizing. The anti-abortion movement, seizing on the chivalric and politically useful “we’ll save the girls” refrain is cynically using the global “baby girls under siege” issue as part of a concerted incremental chipping away of abortion rights and women’s reproductive freedom. Employing sex selective abortions as a political chess piece wasdeliberately outlined by the movement as early as 1994. As I typed this, the House of Representatives voted to reject the perversely named Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimation Act (PRENDA), which sought to ban sex-selection abortions. Authored largely by a man with an obsessive nostalgia for pre-industrial white male supremacy, this bill was roundly condemned by a broad coalition of civil rights, reproductive rights and justice, Asian American community leaders. This legislation would have impacted very few abortions and would do nothing to help girls and women on the planet. Herein, of course, resides the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement which repeatedly demonstrates its core lack of interest in equality for girls and women. If you’re a legislator and you want to save innocent lives you cultivate justice for girls and women and you stop funding violent militarism at unconscionable levels. In these ways you work to change widespread sexist norms that result in the wholesale devaluation and dehumanization of girls and women.

The harm is not in the legality or availability of abortion. People have always found a way to kill girls. If current day medical technologies didn’t exist people would and do find ways, inhumane and shocking, to achieve the same ends. But, if the discrimination did not exist the means would not be so abused. The harm is in social norms that discriminate against girls and women and violate their rights. The harm is in a cult of masculinity that engenders senseless violence…including sex selection.

When societies respect the equality of girls and women and “give” them control of their reproductive rights societies benefit. There is no contradiction between providing safe and legal abortion (particularly in the context of women’s health and family planning) and creating cultures that reject the elimination of girls.As a matter of fact if you do the latter, reliance on the former will be reduced. The truth is the implications of sex selection abortion for the ethics and morality of genetic profiling in general are far greater than for rectifying the sex ratio imbalance. (Even including sex selection in a genetic profiling framework illustrates the widespread societal understanding of being female as a birth defect.)

Mara Hvistendahl’s book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men , is an excellent and deeply disturbing account of the “rampant demographic masculinization” of the planet and provides a comprehensive and detailed analysis of this complex problem. Published in 2011, it spurred a lengthy debate about sex selection, abortion and women’s rights between Hvistendahl and conservative columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat wrote that “The spread of sex-selective abortion is often framed as a simple case of modern science being abused by patriarchal, misogynistic cultures” but that it is “more complicated than that.” He then went on to list what he meant – all of his examples being cases of abuse by patriarchal, misogynic cultures in acton. He simply cited examples of American policy interventions that exacerbated sex selection problems in ways that suggested they could not possibly be patriarchal and misogynistic by simple virtue of being American. As Hvistendahl pointed out in response, as people long immersed in this situation in India and China are all too aware, going backwards and curtailing women’s rights is not the solution.

So, what to do as individuals? I’d say it’s important not to dismiss sexism, minor or major, casually. Call it out, discuss it openly, challenge it always. Think twice about electing officials who perpetuate misogyny under the guise of paternalism by denying women their rights to bodily autonomy, privacy, due process and more and say it’s the moral thing to do. If you truly want to save lives then start with the living. And, the next time you think about using some variation of ‘female’ as an insult, or decide that boys shouldn’t be allowed to empathize with girls because it might hurt them, maybe take time to consider the exponential consequences of the underlying messages.


Photo Credit: Fan Yuelong

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  • I am the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign which has been lobbying against female gendercide in India for the last 7 years.  And I am also the author of Sex and Power (Penguin Global, 2009), that is a social, historical and cultural study of what led to India’s female gendercide.  And I have to tell you I did not agree with a lot of what Mara said in her book. She presents this largely as a female feticide issue, basically dismisses that there are any other forms of killing like infanticides, which she says there are very few.  It’s not true.  There are millions of girls killed after birth, and uptil the age of 6.  There are more than 136000 young, married women murdered for dowry, thousands killed for so called “honor.” Hundreds lynched as witches.  No actually, Ross does not try to say that the Americans don’t have much to do with this.  He challenges Mara on what he regards as her inability to be honest about the issue of abortion.  He says if abortion is what is causing millions of girls killed before they are born, Mara with her pro-choice stand, is unable to be honest about how destructive women are when they are given the choice of abortion.  Mara makes one right observation that the higher up you go in Indian society, more wealth and education, the more women are likely to have abortions of female fetuses.  But she is wrong where she says it is women making the choice and not men! And the reason women are making this choice is because they want to save their daughters from pain!  That’s absolutely wrong! For those us who are from the Indian culture, and are working with this issue — we know women don’t have a CHOICE.  All female fetal abortions are decided on by the husband, and in-laws.  A woman does not own her own body in India.  Her parents decide whose bed she will share, whose children she will bear, and her husband and in-laws put her through gruelling back to back abortions.  We had a show recently where for the first time woman after woman testified how they had been often beaten, abused into these abortions.  Female fetal abortions and the anti-abortion march actually share a common goal: To own a woman’s body and womb!!