It Also Happens Here

The practice of sex-selective abortion isn’t confined to Asia. It is becoming more common in the US too.

In the United States, ultrasound image technology has been instrumental in revealing the unborn child as a living and sensing person. By giving mothers and fathers an enhanced picture of who is being killed during an abortion, such technology has been one of the pro-life cause’s most valuable tools to impede the culture of death.

Fourteen states require that women be offered a chance to view an ultrasound image of the unborn child before obtaining an abortion. And studies show up to 90 percent of women who see an ultrasound opt not to abort. The widespread use of ultrasounds has been a major reason why abortions have decreased by 25 percent, from an all-time high of 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2005, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Yet, in many parts of the world—and increasingly in the US—the detailed image of the developing unborn child provided by ultrasound technology is used for a much different purpose: to discern the sex of the child and, if the child is a girl, to kill her.

Sex-selective abortion (also known as “son preference” or less accurately as “gendercide”) is prevalent throughout many parts of Asia where boys are preferred. But it is becoming more common in the United States too. It occurs not only among Asian immigrants but also among a cross-section of Americans seeking to “balance” their families or otherwise control the genetic makeup of their children.

As governments generally supportive of abortion grapple with sex-selective abortion and its consequences, they have the formidable task of convincing their citizens not to abort a child because of her sex, even as they continue to affirm their citizens’ right to abort for almost any other reason.


Though hard to pinpoint, the number of sex-selective abortions is staggering. In 2005, the United Nations estimated that there are 200 million girls “missing” from the world because of sex-selective abortion. The practice is most prevalent in China, India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

In China, sex-selective abortion has altered the ratio of males to females born from the natural average of about 105 men for every 100 women to roughly 113 men per 100 women. In some regions there are as many as 140 boys born for every 100 girls born. Men in China now outnumber women by 37 million.

Boys are much less likely to be targeted for abortion because they are considered more valuable than girls throughout much of Asia. Males carry on the family name and are expected to care for aging parents in many countries without pension systems. Men also keep the family land, whereas the families of girls who wed are expected to provide dowries to the grooms’ families, including large sums of money and goods. Many Indian Hindus even believe that women who have only daughters risk being reincarnated into a lower caste.

As a Chinese woman explained to a Washington Post reporter about the prevalence of sex-selective abortion, “the real reason is that we need someone to fetch water, to guard our orchard, to work in the fields, and to care for us when we get old.”

Deadly discrimination against girls existed in Asia long before the use of ultrasounds became widespread in the early 1990s. Back then, infanticide and abandonment were the most common ways of eliminating unwanted newborn girls. Today, ultrasound technology can determine the sex of a child by about 90 days gestation.

In China, the Communist government’s brutal one-child policy is at the root of sex-selective abortion and its consequent social problems. Women are regularly imprisoned, tortured, or forcibly aborted or sterilized if they have more than one child. And since families are often allowed only one child, ensuring that child is a boy is considered essential by many Chinese.

While girls and women clearly bear the worst effects of sex-selective abortion, men are also adversely affected. With fewer girls being born, millions of Asian men are finding it increasingly difficult to find wives.

The problem is especially acute in China. Research shows that by 2020, 15 percent of China’s young adult males will be unable to find wives. And China has seen a sharp rise in violent crime over the past 10 years, committed mostly by the surplus men who, unable to find wives or employment, often resort to drug use and a life of crime.

Also, since women are scarce, prostitution and human trafficking have become powerful industries. The US State Department estimated that as many as 10 million people in China were involved in prostitution in 2001. Predictably, the rise in the sex-trade has brought with it an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. The Chinese government, which tends to underestimate health statistics, has stated that more than 120 million Chinese have hepatitis B and more than one million have HIV.


Sex-selective abortion is also evident among Asian families that come to the United States. Researchers at the National Academy of Sciences examined the 2000 US Census and found that Asian American families from India, China, and South Korea were more likely than other Americans to have a boy if they already had a girl. “The male bias in the US,” researchers found, “appears to be recent. In the 1990 US census, the tendency for males to follow females among Indians, Chinese, and Koreans is substantially muted.”

But “between 1989 and 1999, prenatal ultrasound use among non-Japanese Asian mothers rose from around 38 percent to 64 percent of pregnancies.” According to the researchers, “This male bias is particularly evident for third children: If there was no previous son, sons outnumbered daughters by 50 percent.”

Sex-selective abortion is not widespread in America. But just as it became easier to destroy girls in Asia once ultrasounds became available, the destruction of unborn human life may become widespread in America as sex detection becomes easier.

Last June, a home test called the Intelligender Gender Prediction Test was placed on the market for about $35 in stores like Target and Walgreens. The test claims to be able to detect the sex of a child as early as 10 weeks after conception and at home, with no need to visit a doctor’s office. The test boasts an 82 percent accuracy rate.

Another technological development called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) involves examining embryos resulting from in vitro fertilization, then testing them for X or Y chromosomes and implanting the desired embryos into a woman’s womb.

PGD is now offered by clinics such as the Fertility Institutes, whose website states that “by examining the genetic makeup of embryos, we can guarantee your next child will be the sex of your choice.” It offers, among other services, “screening for over 400 hereditary diseases” and “[d]iscounted travel plans for out of state and international patients.” The center claims to have assisted patients from 147 nations “seeking to balance their families or assure themselves that a pregnancy will result in ONLY the gender outcome they desire.”

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine has, in past statements, discouraged the use of PGD solely for sex selection. But it supports sperm sorting for family balancing and for the “prevention of genetic diseases.”

David Karabinus, a director at the Genetics and IVF Institute, believes that elective sex selection will eventually be seen as just another form of reproductive medicine. “Just as there was an overreaction about IVF,” he told the London Times in August, “there will be a gradual acceptance as we prove it’s safe. It’s there if people want it.”

Polls reveal an American public ambivalent about PGD and other technology used for eugenic purposes. A poll in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Genetic Counseling (JGC) found that a majority of respondents would elect to have prenatal genetic testing for mental retardation (75 percent), deafness (54 percent), heart disease (52 percent), cancer (51 percent), and other diseases. Most respondents, however, did not desire testing for genetic enhancements (e.g., 13 percent would choose testing for superior intelligence).

What about sex-selective abortion? Polls show that most Americans do not hold a strong anti-girl bias. In fact, according to the 2000 US Census there were about five million more females than males. Yet, a 2003 Gallup poll of sex preference found that 28 percent of respondents preferred girls, 38 percent preferred boys, and 34 percent had no preference. And in a 2002 Fortune magazine survey, 25 to 35 percent of parents and prospective parents said they would use sex selection if it was available.

“Our study suggests that consumers desire more reproductive genetic testing than what is currently offered,” the JGC authors wrote. “However, their selection of tests suggests self-imposed limits on testing.”

As genetic technology becomes less invasive, less expensive, and more reliable, obvious questions arise: Where are those limits? Will parents test for height, eye color, or propensity for depression? The possibilities seem endless.

Because Asia’s demographic future looks bleak, many of the continent’s governments have outlawed ultrasounds for sex determination. In 2002 Chinese officials instituted a crackdown on black market ultrasounds. Vietnam banned sex-selective abortion in 2006.

India has probably done the most to combat the use of ultrasounds for sexselective abortion. It outlawed the practice in 1994. Before taking an ultrasound test, pregnant Indian women must sign a form agreeing not to try to find out the sex of the baby. Doctors who disclose the sex during an examination can be imprisoned for as long as five years.

But the law is widely flouted. Studies suggest that Indian doctors often give hints, by remarking, for instance, “Your child will be a fighter,” or by offering pink or blue candy as mothers leave the clinic.

India and China recently began pilot projects to make cash payments to couples when they register the birth of a daughter and later when they immunize her and enroll her in school.

Last fall, thousands of women marched in southern India to protestsex-selective abortion. Ten thousand students protested, holding signs that read, “Do not kill us,” “Adoption against abortion,” and “No discrimination against girl children.” In 2008, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for stricter enforcement of ultrasound laws. (According to the British Medical Journal, there are as many as 100,000 ultrasound machines in India.) He has described sex-selective abortion as “inhuman, uncivilized, and reprehensible” and a “national shame.”


The United States and the United Nations acknowledge that there’s a problem. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “Obviously there’s work to be done in both India and China, because the infanticide rate of girl babies is still overwhelmingly high, and unfortunately with technology, parents are able to use sonograms to determine the sex of the baby, and to abort girl children simply because they’d rather have a boy. And those are deeply set attitudes.” In August 2009, Clinton told the New York Times that she opposes sex-selective abortion. And the United Nations has also urged governments “to take necessary measures to prevent… prenatal sex selection.”

But because the Obama administration and the UN—not to mention many of the offending countries—support abortion generally, their criticism of the practice has been muted.

Sex-selective abortion presents a profound problem for modern liberals and their institutions, placing two liberal values—choice and privacy on the one hand and the empowerment of women on the other—on a collision course. Abortion was legalized under the guise of privacy, equality, and choice for women. An unintended consequence is that millions of girls are offered no choice and are being targeted disproportionately.

If the abortion of girls is wrong, then the abortion of boys must be wrong too. Not surprisingly, most so-called women’s groups have refused to condemn sex-selective abortion.

Pro-life groups, meanwhile, have led the way in highlighting this problem in America. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks introduced the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2009 (PreNDA), which seeks to criminalize the practice of sex-selective and race-selective abortions. At least three states have statutes that prohibit sex-selective abortion, with fines of as much as $100,000 for abortionists who violate the bans.

In an interview, Steve Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, said he believes sex-selective abortion is “a very useful wedge issue for pro lifers,” and that PreNDA has a real chance of passing because some congressmen who are generally supportive of abortion will support outlawing abortions performed for reasons of sex or race.

Mosher believes the issue could present pro-lifers with “a good opportunity for debate about abortion and the chance to educate people and bring new people into the movement.” Public opinion polling supports Mosher’s claim. A 2006 Zogby poll found that 87 percent of Americans would support legislation to ban abortions based on the sex of the child. But how long will it be before Americans are as supportive of sex-selective abortion as they are now of PGD testing for genetic disabilities? The Church’s clarity on matters of reproduction and human dignity is as valuable as ever.

In late November, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved a new document clearly expressingthe Church’s opposition to certain reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilization and human cloning. In Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology, the bishops write:

Each of these abuses is a natural outgrowth of the original decision to turn the begetting of a child into a manufacturing process. This threatens to turn what should be the unconditional love and acceptance of parents for their sons and daughters into something more tentative and conditional. In this situation a new life may be highly valued—as a way of meeting parents’ goals for family size, or of achieving other goals such as scientific knowledge—but this human life is not respected as human persons deserve to be respected.

Pro-Life Committee Chairman Cardinal Justin Rigali introduced the new document as a way of addressing “much confusion” among Catholics regarding the Church’s teaching on modern reproductive technology.

He continued, “Any method of making babies is sometimes considered to be pro-life. There is a need, therefore, to help Catholics understand specific differences between the Catholic understanding and the secular understanding of human life, and how these distinctions have led to different judgments on technologies that may intervene in human reproduction.”


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About Daniel Allott 0 Articles
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute.