Today I bring you the last in a three-part blog series on Nicholas Eberstadt’s article in the New Atlantis entitled “The Global War Against Baby Girls”.  On Friday, we talked about the problem of female feticide in China. On Monday, we looked at the problem elsewhere in the world. Today, Ebertadt article looks at the global effect of this problem and whether there is any hope for the future.

The first thing to realise is that the problem of sex-selective abortions and neglect of female infants is truly massive.  Eberstadt, using the figures provided by the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) and the US Census Bureau’s International Programs Center (IPC), as well as official demographic statistics from various nations, estimates that those countries with a sex ratio at birth (SRB), or a sex ratio below the age of 5, boys to girls of 107 or higher:

 “…total…over 50 countries and territories accounting for over 3.2 billion people, or nearly half of the world’s total population. By the reckoning of UNPD, the overall global sex ratio at birth has already assumed naturally impossible heights in the era of sex-selective abortion, rising from 105 in 1975-80 to 107 for 2005-10. By the same token, IPC puts the worldwide under-5 child sex ratio at 107 for 2010. To go by both UNPD and IPC reconstructions of local age-sex structures, today’s societies with unnaturally high SRBs and/or child sex ratios had an aggregate “boy surplus” of over 55 million males under the age of 20 by the year 2010; and if we assume that the SRBs and child/youth sex ratios in these societies should be around 105, the unnatural “girl deficit” for females 0-19 years of age as of 2010 would have totalled roughly 32-33 million by both UNPD and IPC figures.”

It is indeed a massive issue – one that the sheer numbers make it hard to comprehend.  But it is not surprising that with these figures in mind, Eberstadt claims that the global war:

“…has come to distort the population composition of the entire human species: this new and medicalized war against baby girls is indeed truly global in scale and scope.”

Eberstadt understandably does not hold anything back when he discusses the effect of sex-selective abortions:

“[it] establishes a new social reality that inescapably colours the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavoured sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signalling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.”

While women may be seen to be more “valuable” this can have perverse consequences – including increased demand for prostitution and an upsurge in the kidnapping and trafficking of women.  And what about the men left behind? Well, they are less likely to be married – by 2040 23% of Chinese males in their early 40s or under will have never married (up from about 4% as of 2000).  Unmarried men tend to suffer grater health risks than their married counterparts, while there is the question of their support in old-age if they have no children (especially with the population getting older as well).  Finally, there is the social impact of “excess males” – increased crime, violence, social tensions and a greater proclivity for social instability are all touted as potential problems from such an unbalanced population. 

So what does the future hold? Eberstadt mentions three factors associated with SRB imbalances – low or sub-replacement fertility levels, easy access to ultrasounds and abortion services and a “ruthless son preference”.  The first two factors are unlikely to go away anytime soon. The third factor is harder to pick (in part due to demographers tending to ask people how many children they want to have, but not what sex they want their babies to be). However, Eberstadt does posit a gloomy outlook in this regard:

“…societies where female rates exceed male rates (patterns arising from systemic discriminatory mistreatment of little girls) may be correspondingly disposed to prenatal gender discrimination as well. According to the World Health Organization’s 2009 Life Tables, over 60 countries currently experience higher infant or age 1-4 mortality rates for girls than for boys: a roster including much of South-Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, and over a dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa. If such gender bias in mortality turns out to be a predictor of sex-selection bias, this global problem may get considerably worse before it gets better.”

However, there is one ray of hope in an otherwise bleak canvas: South Korea. In the early 1990s, South Korea’s SRB was similar to China’s – around 114.  By 2009 however, its SRB had declined to a practically “normal” 106. How this happened is up for debate – many parties are claiming the credit for this turnaround.  It does seem to have been less affected by governmental policy than by civil society:

“…more specifically, by the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated congealing of a mass movement for honouring, protecting, and prizing daughters. In effect, this movement — drawing largely but by no means exclusively on the faith-based community — sparked a national conversation of conscience about the practice of female feticide. This conversation was instrumental in stigmatizing the practice, not altogether unlike the way in which nationwide conversations of conscience helped to stigmatize international slave-trading in other countries in earlier times.”

We can legislate all we want against sex-selective abortion (China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and India all do so) but until people stop wanting so desperately to have a boy that they are willing to kill their baby girls then it is unlikely that countries’ SRBs will change. This does strike to a bit of a blind spot in the abortion debate though – is it ok to abort your child for any reason? If not, why not? Can we abort our down syndrome baby, but not our female one? Is it wrong because of the effect that it has, and therefore, the act of aborting a baby because it is a daughter is in itself not wrong? Reading and thinking about this article has made me quite glad that Ash Wednesday is here and that Lent has begun.  There is a lot of grace to be asked for and repentance to be done.  


Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...