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A Few Good Women

A Few Good Women

Throughout recorded history, most cultures have had a preference for boy babies over girl babies. In a competitive world, men’s greater size and physical strength, essential in war and other heavy physical activities, trumped the feminine.

Some cultures have extended that bias to killing newborn girl babies, as detailed in a Pulitzer-Prize-2012-finalist book by Mara Hvistendahl titled “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.” England’s Henry VIII did it differently; he divorced or killed various wives who failed to produce a male heir. That story turned out well for his country: one of Henry’s rejected, but alive, girl babies became Queen Elizabeth I, one of the most successful monarchs ever.

Technology in the past few decades has made it easy to determine the sex of embryos at progressively earlier stages of pregnancy, and it is now possible (using the in vitro process) to determine the sex of the fertilized egg before implant. Technology has led to many millions of sex selective abortions in recent decades, particularly in Asian countries with strong cultural biases in favor of boys. As one result, China and India, which together have about 37% of the earth’s human population, have had sex ratios at birth exceeding 110 boys to 100 girls. United Nations’ studies list several smaller countries with a sex ratio at birth of 115 or higher. (See the UNFPA “Guidance Note on Prenatal Sex Selection” for more information)

Ms. Hvistendahl details bad effects for societies of “surplus men” – more violence and crime from unattached and unsatisfied men, political instability, exploitation of stolen girls for prostitution, and other ills. The possible silver lining, that fewer women might dampen population growth and pressures on our planet’s “carrying capacity,” has not happened so far. Instead, government actions, most noticeably China’s “one child” policy, and economic development have produced sharp drops in birth rates and population growth. India’s birth rate dropped by more than half in 35 years, from 5.7 children per woman in 1965 to 2.58 today. (CIA World Factbook; Arjun Adlakha, “Population Trends: India” etc.). China’s 1980 implementation of its “one child” policy and earlier actions dropped 1970’s fertility rate of 5.5 per woman to 2.3 in 1990. Predictably, in cultures where there is a strong underlying bias for males, fewer children per family has increased pressures for sex selection through technology, and so projections of future birth sex ratios are difficult. It remains to be seen whether or not Ms. Hvistendahl’s new world of “surplus men” will produce fewer babies overall.

In my American experience, sex bias sometimes runs the other way. My parents had named me “Kathleen” before I was born a boy. My younger brothers Tom and Ken were also supposed to be “Kathleen,” but “Kathleen” did not show up until their first grandchild, my daughter Julie, was born.


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