Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection, has been making the rounds in the media drawing out some of the shocking and under-appreciated consequences of sex-selective abortion around the world (we’ve talked about her here and here), but all the while assuring readers that the catastrophic problems she’s describing have nothing to do with abortion per se, only with its application.
Be that as it may, her latest piece in Foreign Policy points out what pro-life groups have been saying for over thirty years: that Western reproductive ideology funded, fueled, and enabled abortion around the globe as a means of population control.
Then I looked into it, and discovered that what I thought were right-wing conspiracy theories about the nexus of Western feminism and population control actually had some, if very distant and entirely historical, basis in truth. As it turns out, Western advisors and researchers, and Western money, were among the forces that contributed to a serious reduction in the number of women and girls in the developing world. And today feminist and reproductive-rights groups are still reeling from that legacy.
Those “very distant and entirely historical” connections turn out to be intimate and recent, as she argues in the paragraphs that follow. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, panic over the coming population explosion resulted in a major campaign by Western intellectuals and NGOs to stem the tide of babies with which the third world seemed poised to drown the planet. In the late 1960s,
Steven Polgar, [Planned Parenthood]‘s head of research, went public with the notion that sex selection was an effective population control method. Taking the podium before an audience of scholars and policymakers at a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Polgar “urged,” according to the meeting’s minutes, “that sociologists stimulate biologists to find a method of sex determination, since some parents have additional children in order to get one of specified sex.”
Paul Ehrlich, author of the infamous Population Bomb, argued directly that “if a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males, then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.”
Much of the argumentation was from men, but
a handful of women got on board as well. In 1978, former ambassador and former U.S. Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce wrote an article for the Washington Star in which she clamored for the development of a “manchild pill” — a drug a woman could take before sex to ensure any children that resulted would be male.
Much of the West’s fancy intellectual posturing became policy in other nations around the globe, leading to some shocking excesses that helped cement the practice of sex-selective abortion. In South Korea, for instance,
by the 1970s, recalls gynecologist Cho Young-youl, who was a medical student at the time, “there were agents going around the countryside to small towns and bringing women into the [mobile] clinics. That counted toward their pay. They brought the women regardless of whether they were pregnant.” Non-pregnant women were sterilized. A pregnant woman met a worse fate, Cho says: “The agent would have her abort and then undergo tubal ligation.” [...] By 1977, they determined, doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth — the highest documented abortion rate in human history. Were it not for this history, Korean sociologist Heeran Chun recently told me, “I don’t think sex-selective abortion would have become so popular.”
In China in the early 1980s, party officials openly spoke of ensuring that the populace would meet “new birth quotas through forced abortions.” That proved not to be empty rhetoric.
After decades of connection to chilling practices like forced sterilization and open encouragement of sex-selective abortion, Hvistendahl rightly points out that NGOs and UN groups now find themselves in a terrible bind, unable to provide legitimate health-care services because of their long legacy of promoting a strict doctrine of sola abortio for all the third world’s problems.
Hvistendahl herself proves that sex-selective abortion and abortion-as-population-control became a reality in the non-Western world because of the consistent efforts of the Western academy and Western NGOs throughout the 1950-1980s. If those connections are “very distant and entirely historical,” I’m curious what her definition of a close connection would be.
Hvistendahl remains totally committed to women’s abortion rights, in the face of all her evidence about how the immediate past history of the abortion movement has led us to this scenario. As for the future, she puts all of her eggs in one basket: “a new wave of feminist bureaucrats who are keen on ensuring reproductive rights, and [who] no longer finance global population control.” I hope she’s right to do so, because, as she says, “Indian public health activist George, indeed, says waiting to act is no longer an option: If the world does ‘not see ten years ahead to where we’re headed, we’re lost.’”