The False Choice between Development and Daughters

By Yoshihara, Susan | The Human Life Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The False Choice between Development and Daughters


Yoshihara, Susan, The Human Life Review


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.

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