Consequences of Choice

Posted on July 5, 2011 by


Few issues arouse hostility the way abortions does.  The debates revolve around primacy of rights.  Either the womans right to bodily autonomy trumps the unborns right to live, or it doesn’t.  The United States is almost divided equally on this issue and the pro-life/pro-choice culture war rages on. 

Jonathan V. Last of the Wall Street Journal reviews a book that could dramatically reframe the abortion debate, whether intentionally or not.  Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl reports on the gender imbalance being created by sex-selective abortions.

It is well known that ecosystems have a delicate balance.  An over-population of any particular species can create havoc.  Human societies are equally delicate. 


In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio is biologically ironclad. Between 104 and 106 is the normal range, and that’s as far as the natural window goes. Any other number is the result of unnatural events.

Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, the number is 121—though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark. China’s and India’s populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107. But the imbalance is not only in Asia. Azerbaijan stands at 115, Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120.

Why is this bad?

Ms. Hvistendahl argues that such imbalances are portents of Very Bad Things to come. “Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live,” she writes. “Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent.” As examples she notes that high sex ratios were at play as far back as the fourth century B.C. in Athens—a particularly bloody time in Greek history—and during China’s Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. (Both eras featured widespread female infanticide.) She also notes that the dearth of women along the frontier in the American West probably had a lot to do with its being wild. In 1870, for instance, the sex ratio west of the Mississippi was 125 to 100. In California it was 166 to 100. In Nevada it was 320. In western Kansas, it was 768.

There is indeed compelling evidence of a link between sex ratios and violence. High sex ratios mean that a society is going to have “surplus men”—that is, men with no hope of marrying because there are not enough women. Such men accumulate in the lower classes, where risks of violence are already elevated. And unmarried men with limited incomes tend to make trouble. In Chinese provinces where the sex ratio has spiked, a crime wave has followed. Today in India, the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income but sex ratio.

Mrs Hvistendahl isn’t the least bit interested in restricting the right to abortion, so we may not assume she is grasping at straws to support her pro-life agenda. 

Late in “Unnatural Selection,” Ms. Hvistendahl makes some suggestions as to how such “abuse” might be curbed without infringing on a woman’s right to have an abortion. In attempting to serve these two diametrically opposed ideas, she proposes banning the common practice of revealing the sex of a baby to parents during ultrasound testing. And not just ban it, but have rigorous government enforcement, which would include nationwide sting operations designed to send doctors and ultrasound techs and nurses who reveal the sex of babies to jail.

But Mr Last rightly points out that despite Mrs Hvistendahls intentions, she highlights the devastating societal consequences of “choice”. (Emphasis mine)

Despite the author’s intentions, “Unnatural Selection” might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of “choice.” For if “choice” is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against “gendercide.” Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s “mental health” requires it. Choice is choice. One Indian abortionist tells Ms. Hvistendahl: “I have patients who come and say ‘I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.’ “

I highlighted the above because for the sake of debate we should not see this as a sexism issue.  The preference could just as easily be for girls as it was in Japan for awhile.  As our technology to know more about a fetus before it is born improves we may find parents selecting for any kind of preferred quality that could harm the delicate balance of social stability.