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The venerable Durham Cathedral in England houses a manuscript containing a collection of eleventh-century Old English proverbs known as the Durham Proverbs . One of these proverbs states, “Man does as he is when he can do what he wants.” The proverb’s author clearly understood that, with our fallen nature, humanity has a propensity to turn liberty into license. But often, those who get to do as they wish end up disliking the consequences. Nine hundred years later, this proverb makes for a condensed précis of Mara Hvistendahl’s recent book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men .

The book’s premise is that the world is missing approximately 160 million women as a result of prenatal female infanticide and sex-selection abortion in Asia and Western Europe. Hvistendahl informs us that the natural sex ratio at birth is 105 boys for every 100 girls. Nature has provided a built in surplus of males because boys are more likely to engage in dangerous behavior that causes them to die earlier, such as going to war, “or riding motorcycles without wearing a helmet.” This natural balance helps ensure that those seeking a mate will be able to find one. But in parts of the world this balance is significantly skewed: The sex ratio in China is now 121 boys for every 100 girls, and in India it is 112:100. Worldwide, the sex ratio is at 107:100, a reality Hvistendahl maintains is “biologically impossible” to sustain.

This unsustainable gender imbalance which results from prenatal female gendercide is an excrescence of abortion. A catalyst for this condition has been the proliferation and affordability of the ultrasound machine, making it simple for pregnant women to find out the sex of their unborn child. Cheap ultrasound machines can be hooked up to personal computers, making them easy to use even in rural areas. Making it so easy to identify the sex of an unborn child in cultures that place a much higher value on the lives of male infants than female infants is like pouring gasoline on a forest fire. Combined with the fact that in many of these cultures, abortion is a form of contraception (the average Azerbaijani woman has 3.2 abortions in her life), there is plenty of evidence supporting Hvistendahl’s claim that a whole generation’s worth of women has been eliminated.

In her book, Hvistendahl, who writes for Science magazine, meticulously tracks down the source of China’s one child family planning policy (Swedish professor Geert Jan Olsder) and follows a trajectory finishing in an American fertility clinic where currently parents are able to engineer certain physical characteristics of their unborn children with preimplantation genetic diagnosis. On the way, she takes us to an abortion clinic in India where an Indian medical student watches a cat carry out an aborted fetus, then on to a Chinese village where local officials post signs saying, “You Can Beat It Out! You Can Make It Fall Out! You Can Abort It! But You Cannot Give Birth To It!” The implications of a “womanless world” are numerous, and include increases in sex trafficking, polyandry, and prostitution“all examined thoroughly by Hvistendahl. In addition, she points out a consequence that has not received as much attention as the others: The increasing numbers of men unable to find a mate make up a demographic that is becoming dangerously unstable. They are the “angry young men” (“ fenqing ,” as they are known in China), who, because they have no outlet for their hostility, direct their frustrations towards other nations, thus causing geopolitical instability. Hvistendahl speculates that this particular demographic will become more evident and visible within other countries with skewed birthrates. This should be unsettling for those concerned with American foreign interests abroad.

As I was half-way through this book, I saw a trailer for a soon to be released documentary by Shadowline Films , entitled “It’s a Girl,” which explores the subject of female gendercide. At one point in the trailer, an Indian woman smiles as she admits to strangling eight female infants immediately after she bore them, because they were girls. While horrific, this documentary and Hvistendahl’s book are encouraging evidence that this issue is at least beginning to garner the attention it deserves.

Also encouraging is that many in the pro-life culture see sex-selection abortion as a wedge issue. There is an obvious intellectual inconsistency between acceptable and easy abortion for the sake of convenience and right, on the one hand, and outrage at killing an unborn child simply because of her gender, on the other. To date, those in the pro-life movement have attempted to attach specific visible characteristics to each unborn child“heartbeat, lips, thumb sucking, the ability to feel pain. Perhaps adding and projecting a collective characteristic such as gender on the unborn will advance the cause. Ending abortion will only happen incrementally, and a movement prohibiting abortions based on gender would be a step in the right direction. Currently, four states have laws prohibiting abortions on the basis of gender.

And even if sex-selection abortion is not an effective wedge issue, it is certainly an opportunity for dialogue, to which Hvistendahl appears open. Though she is forcefully pro-choice (see her very public running commentary with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who intimated that her book unwittingly makes the pro-life argument), there is honesty in Hvistendahl’s writing. At one point she reveals her discomfort with the flippant and casual attitude that many women have about abortion in general. She wonders whether choice has been “perverted” by its frequency.

Hvistendahl’s concern ultimately makes this book about much more than abortion and population demographics. It’s about the unintended result of free will that C.S. Lewis wrote about in The Great Divorce . God will eventually give people what they want in the end. But they may not like what they end up with.

Joseph A. Kohm, Jr. is an attorney and adjunct professor at Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

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