Right now, in almost any corner of the world, a baby girl is being killed just because she is a girl. Her mother may be rich or poor, educated or uneducated. One thing is certain: She is not alone. She is part of a growing global trend of sex selective abortion and infanticide that favors sons and proves deadly for daughters. The practice, once thought to be unique to China and India, is catching on in Central Asia, Latin America, and the rest of the world. In an era when girls can rightly aspire to unprecedented status alongside their brothers, why are more parents choosing not to let them live?
Even the controversial United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which promotes fertility decline and abortion, estimates there are now between 60 million and 100 million “missing girls” worldwide. What is missing from the analysis, however, is acknowledgment that international institutions like UNFPA, created after World War II to foster development, are key drivers of the unfolding tragedy through their promotion of fertility decline as a prerequisite for human development, and fertility control as an international human right.
This fact should give us pause the next time we hear a U.N. official tell us that the advancement of women is a top priority.
Throughout human history, demographers tell us, nature has provided about 105 male births for every 100 females. This “sex ratio at birth”—stable across generations and ethnic boundaries—may range from 103 to as high as 106 boys for every 100 girls. In only one generation, that ratio has come unglued.
A Chinese census reports ratios as high as 120-136 boys born for every 100 girls; in Taiwan, ratios of 119 boys to 100 girls; in Singapore 118 boys per 100 girls; South Korea 112 boys per 100 girls; and in India, where the practice was outlawed in 1994, the ratio continues to exceed 120 boys for every 100 girls in some areas. Countries such as Greece, Luxembourg, El Salvador, the Philippines, Cape Verde, and Egypt, even among some ethnic groups in the United States (Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino), are showing the same deadly discrimination against daughters.
What is the cause of the crisis? Experts point to a recent confluence of four main factors: rising access to sonogram technology, increased access to abortion, a preference for sons, and fertility decline.
Of the four factors, the first two seem fairly straightforward. Simply put, parents who prefer sons are better equipped than ever to get what they want. Abortion is increasingly legal, available, and socially acceptable in every part of the world. The second factor, sex detection, has been recognized by concerned government officials for years, and even banned in India. Sex determination by sonogram or ultrasound, amniocentesis, and IVF is increasingly available.
Some U.N. officials have argued that the third factor, son preference, is the primary cause of the problem and therefore should be the main target of international condemnation. Son preference is prevalent in East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and stems from norms and laws related to inheritance, dowries, men’s higher wage earnings, and a desire to carry on the family line.
Thus killing girls before or after birth is part of the wider problem of violence against women, like dowry deaths and widow burnings. It is important to note that these practices, too, persist long after Delhi has banned them. Desperate, the government has introduced state-run orphanages for unwanted girls. As Ashley Fernandes recently noted in First Things, the good that this stop-gap measure will do is still uncertain. India’s first woman head of state, Pratibha Patil, announced at her inauguration last week that stopping female feticide tops her agenda.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, so far the only country to have reversed the trend in sex ratios at birth, normative changes related to public policies apparently worked after banning the practice made matters even worse. As the Indian and Korean cases show, then, international efforts must not stop at legislation and enforcement.
If we are to focus on the “root cause” of son preference, we must examine the role that social policies play, including those promoted by international actors. This means looking more closely at the relationship of the last two factors: son preference and fertility decline.
Over the last generation, the world has witnessed a drive toward smaller families, and this is directly related to sex selection. With fewer children, the sex of each child matters more. Analysis by Nicholas Eberstadt shows that, in India, each child after the first is increasingly unwanted, such that, with the second child, the desirability of girls to boys is 16 percent to 40 percent. By the fourth pregnancy, a girl’s desirability is a sad 9 percent, compared with 75 percent in favor of a boy. With these odds, and with cheap sonogram technology and easy access to abortion, is it any wonder India reports that 300,000–500,000 girls go “missing” every year due to infanticide and abortion?
In China, at least half of all second or higher-order female pregnancies are terminated owing to sex. The most recent Chinese census shows a sex ratio of 150 boys for 100 girls in subsequent pregnancies. Hence, the fertility-reduction imperative drives the culling of girls.
The fertility-reduction imperative, in turn, is at the heart of a generation-long campaign by international development institutions. From the time Robert McNamara took the reins of the World Bank in 1968 to the latest Bank health, nutrition, and population strategy released in April, successive Bank presidents have pursued an aggressive population-control agenda, targeting developing countries.
UNFPA’s latest update to its report on member-state contributions shows that eight wealthy European countries, along with Canada and Japan, pay 86 percent of the $389 million bill to fund that agency, which aggressively promotes population control. The top per capita contributors were Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The Bush administration withdrew American support in July 2002 because of evidence that UNFPA collaborated with the Chinese government’s one-child policy. Nonetheless, USAID remains the world’s top provider of contraceptives, budgeting $150 million per year for the effort.
The U.N. Population Division tracks each nation’s contraceptive use, finding a 61 percent global prevalence, and noting positively that artificial contraception increased in the developing world by 1 percent per year from 1995 to 2005 and remained steadily high in developed countries. UNFPA executive director Thoraya Obaid still thinks global contraceptive use is too low and told the press in March that the world needs a “wake up call to the urgency of giving couples the means to exercise their human right to freely determine the sizes of their families.” Obaid’s remark gives us a window into the tight collaboration between U.N. development, health, and human rights officials in promoting reproductive rights. In recent years, this has included UNICEF as well.
The U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), tasked with monitoring compliance by 185 states party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (also called CEDAW), uses UNFPA data regularly to argue that abortion is an international human right. Even though the 1979 treaty never mentions abortion, and many states party to the convention have strong pro-life laws, CEDAW’s committee has pressured more than forty nations in the last five years to liberalize their laws.
The fertility decline agenda is now reaching into the U.N. Population Division, a statistics arm whose data was until recently considered objective and above the fray. In April, the head of the Population Division, Hania Zlotnik, repeatedly told a roomful of delegates to the Commission on Population and Development, “Smaller families live better.” Not even pro-family African and Muslim delegates bothered to challenge her. The sentiment has also taken on the air of dogma at every one of the four U.N. social commissions that meet each year in New York.
Left unchecked, the next victims of the trend will be Africa’s baby girls. With all the other evils facing them, so far they have largely avoided the deadly violence of sex selection due to that region’s relatively high fertility rates. International organizations like UNFPA are engaging in a full-court press to increase contraceptive prevalence in Africa (now the world’s lowest at 27 percent) and to liberalize abortion laws by several means, including a controversial continent-wide framework called the Maputo Plan of Action. Despite the fanfare given it by supporters like UNFPA , it has so far failed to gain official support from AU governments.
Here is the bottom line. Through their various mandates and mindsets, international institutions have put families and poor countries on the horns of a deadly dilemma: They can have social and political progress or they can have more than one or two children. Rights and development are pitted against faith and human life—increasingly, female life. It is a dark choice for any family, and it is a false choice.
With international financial and political institutions, global health and welfare organizations, and even human rights institutions stacking the deck against baby girls, is there any hope that we can help put a stop to the spreading global trend of sex-selective abortion? There have been hopeful signs.
For the first time, in March 2007, the U.N. body charged with looking out for women, CSW, made mention, even if only a passing mention, of the “root causes of son preference” and “female infanticide and pre-natal sex selection.” While other U.N. bodies had condemned sex-selective abortion and infanticide for decades, the women’s body remained silent due to the heavy influence of pro-abortion feminists on Western delegations, primarily from the E.U. Indeed, the 2007 CSW statement conspicuously leaves out any use of the word abortion.
At the same CSW meeting, however, several women’s groups with diverse political perspectives spoke out to demand U.N. action. The fact that each group came to New York virtually unaware of the others may give us hope of springtime in the international women’s agenda. This would only be fitting. The availability—and expectation—of abortion has made killing baby girls, once left to the hands of family and midwives, increasingly the responsibility of mothers.
In her letter to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Mother Teresa wrote: “That special power of loving that belongs to a woman is seen most clearly when she becomes a mother. Motherhood is a gift of God to women.” The present crisis alerts us to a global double devaluation of motherhood—our motherhood and our daughters’.
In the same letter to the Beijing delegates, Mother Teresa said: “God told us, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ So first I must love myself rightly, and then love my neighbor like that.” Unwillingness to bring a girl into the world is a tragic indicator of the way a growing number of women see their own plight. It reflects the declining status of women—certainly not their empowerment. After so many years of international development and human rights, and in a world where so many can have so much, surely we should not have to choose between development and daughters.
Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., is executive vice president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) in New York.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.