ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Thursday, May. 29 2008
The bitter irony of sex-selective abortion
By Colleen Carroll Campbell
Missouri state Treasurer Sarah Steelman recently earned the opprobrium of
abortion-rights advocates by calling for a ban on sex-selective abortions.
Critics have derided this as an attempt by the Republican gubernatorial
candidate to pander to pro-lifers. But a quick glance at international
statistics suggests that sex-selective abortion is no dystopian fantasy. It is
a chilling reality throughout the world and in our own backyard.
Consider the situation in India. The British medical journal The Lancet
recently estimated that as many as half a million female fetuses are aborted
there each year because of their gender. Since the mid-1980s, when ultrasound
technology began allowing parents to learn the sex of their children before
birth, the number of Indian girls per 1,000 boys has declined from 962 in 1981
to 927 in 2001.
The disparity is even more pronounced in India's wealthier urban areas, where
greater access to technology and a government-backed emphasis on small families
have combined with age-old bias toward boys to make the womb a
disproportionately dangerous place for girls. The ratio of girls per 1,000 boys
in these areas hovers around the 700s and 800s, with as few as 300 girls per
1,000 boys in some high-caste urban areas of Punjab.
As investigative journalist Gita Aravamudan argues in her 2007 book,
"Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Feticide," "Female infanticide
is akin to serial killing. But female feticide is more like a holocaust. A
whole gender is getting exterminated."
The problem extends beyond India. A recent United Nations Population Fund
report says at least 60 million girls are "missing" in Asia because of to
sex-selective abortion, infanticide and neglect. The most egregious example is
China, where a brutally enforced one-child policy has produced a national ratio
of 117 boys born for every 100 girls, with some provinces posting ratios of
more than 130 boys per 100 girls.
Demographers predict a shortage of some 30 million Chinese women by 2020, which
they fear will contribute to early, coerced marriages of young girls, increased
violence against women and more exploitation of women and girls through the
region's already burgeoning sex trade.
Most Americans rightly recoil from sex-selective abortion, but it is neither
illegal nor unheard of here. Lax abortion laws and technological access make it
easier than ever for parents to target and delete unwanted daughters or sons
A new study suggests that female feticide may be disturbingly common in some
American communities. In an analysis of 2000 Census data published recently in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Columbia University
economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund examined the sex ratio of births
among U.S.-born children of Chinese, Korean and Asian-Indian parents. They
found "evidence of sex selection, most likely at the prenatal stage."
The sex of a firstborn child in these families conformed to the natural pattern
of 1.05 boys to every girl, a pattern that continued for other children when
the firstborn was a boy. But if the firstborn child was a girl, the likelihood
of a boy coming next was considerably higher than normal at 1.17-to-1. After
two girls, the probability of a boy's birth rose to a decidedly unnatural
The study does not mean that most Asian-Americans practice sex selection, of
course. What the numbers do suggest is that this ultimate form of misogyny can
happen in any culture that fails to defend the intrinsic dignity of every human
Sadly, most American feminist leaders have remained silent in the face of this
modern atrocity. Their refusal to brook any limits on abortion rights has led
to one of the bitterest ironies of our post-feminist age: that the abortion
license touted as the key to liberating future generations of women would
become the preferred means of eradicating them.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St.
Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is