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GIRL TROUBLE : Sex-Selected Abortions Leave the Future of the World Hanging in the Balance

June 18, 1995|Patt Morrison

Several times over the past few years, pregnant friends, fresh from ultrasound appointments or prenatal tests, have phoned or e-mailed with the news: It's a girl!

Their joy was palpable--no exasperating, testosterone-pumping, car-insurance-raising boys. Of course, they would have loved a boy, but there was something especially wonderful about a girl.

After each baby bulletin, the thought struck me: Half a world away from Southern California--in India, at one of the ultrasound clinics that stand on virtually every corner, or in China--another pregnant woman is hearing the same news and is a long way from rejoicing. The odds are she will abort that daughter-in-the-making.

But if ultrasound and a $17.80 abortion (the going rate in India) are beyond the woman's purse, if she doesn't know it's a girl until birth, the baby may be abandoned, poisoned or starved. This has gone on for centuries in places where boys mean wealth and labor and girls mean a burdensome dowry.

At conception, girls outnumber boys, 106 to 100. In India, because of sex-selected abortions and infanticide, infant boys now outnumber girls, about 100 to 92. In China, with its one-child policy, the math is exponential: 16 single men to every eligible woman nationwide, and in the countryside, 100 eligible men for every 28 women.

It's a crime, in India as in China, to tell a woman the embryo's sex. That's not much of a deterrent.

As women's status slowly rises in the West--evidence my friends looking forward to daughters--it still appears to be sinking in the East: AIDS-anxious prostitutes punished for asking a "john" to wear a condom, brides burned to death when their dowries are spent.

And now, sex-selected abortions, which can give pause even to those who consider themselves pro-choice advocates, until you think a little more about just what constitutes "choice."

I talked to a national Planned Parenthood official in town for the recent spate of family planning clinic protests. What's going on in China and India, she said, has nothing to do with women making choices, and everything to do with culture forcing its misogyny on them.

And as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for because it might come true. These cultures that consider a double-X chromosome a deformity may be committing gender genocide.

Carry the numbers forward. The gap widens. What is going to happen to the world as a result of this "gendercide"?

Is there, in the decades to come, any hope?

Overpopulation could drop, for there are only as many children as there are women to bear them. Dr. Strangelove leered at the task of repopulating a postnuclear world with many women to one man; our crowded Earth needs precisely the opposite formula to correct itself.

And then, the iron law of supply and demand could work humane magic. As Third World women become fewer, could their status rise accordingly? Maybe such women could choose their husbands and how many children they want, daughters included. (China is already hearing a cultural dissonance: Most of the men are peasants, while most women have high school or college degrees; women find men who are laborers the least attractive, and smart women aren't popular among men.)

More likely, it will condemn these rare women to being more and more desirable chattel, a prize for the highest bidder. In Margaret Atwood's book, "The Handmaid's Tale," fertile females were rounded up into breeding camps to bear the children of the powerful.

My colleague Martha Groves has written movingly of adopting an abandoned Chinese girl. It is sweet redress to know that she and hundreds like her are faring better than their brothers ever will, and are at least as cherished.

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