The concept of pre-natal gender selection, where fetuses of an ‘unpreferred’ gender are aborted, is not a new one. The issue is commonly associated with China, when gender selective abortion started to become prevalent in the late 1970s after the one child law was introduced, and then spiked again towards the end of the century with developments in ultrasound technology.
It is hard to know what the global situation is owing to significant taboo, but cases seem to be increasingly rapidly, particularly in China, India, Pakistan, the Caucasus, and South East Europe. However, in just the last 12 months, medical and journalistic investigations in both Canada and Australia have revealed these more developed nations are also witnessing a spike in abortive procedures influenced by gender.
Generally prevalent in cultures with greater socio-economic discrepancies between genders, parents generally favour a boy over a girl. In Canada medical researchers have found there to be a strong inconsistency between the sex ratio of Canadian-born mothers and Indian-born mothers. With mothers born in Canada, 105 boys were born to every 100 girls yet with Indian-born mothers the figures released by the Candian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) state that “By the third birth, 138 boys were born to Indian-born mothers for every 100 girls, and by the fourth birth, 166 boys were born to every 100 girls”.
Owing to a lack of data, it is hard to tell what the situation is like in the US, but a 2011 Gallup poll found that if American adults were only allowed to have one child, 40% of respondents said they would prefer a boy, while only 28% preferred a girl.
The problem is also prevalent here in the UK. An investigation by the Independent contradicted the government’s inquiry into the issue which had found “no evidence” of women who had been born abroad preferentially aborting girls.
Contrary to the government’s conclusion, the Independent noted that approximately 10% of 190,000 abortions which took place in England and Wales in 2011 were done after 13 weeks of pregnancy. Whilst it could be argued that for some women, pregnancy takes this long to become apparent, the paper makes a point of this as 13 weeks being the time when a fetus’s reproductive organs can be seen clearly on an ultrasound scan, and the gender of a baby can be predicted to an almost certain degree, thereby facilitating gender-selection.
Why is this important? Sociologists have argued that gender-selective abortion has a negative impact on the ratio of women to men in a given age group, also called “the human sex ratio”. Academics believe that rates of pre-natal gender selection are evident from looking at demographics, and a United Nations report said that a natural birth sex ratio range is 103 to 107 males to females at birth. The UN also claims that if a nation has a birth sex ratio of 108 and above, or 102 and below, then it is likely that there is significant practice of gender selective abortion occurring within the country.
Of course, some academics have doubted that these conclusions can be drawn from a simple assessment of statistical data, and have said that the ratio of men to women isn’t necessarily indicative of whether gender- selective abortion is prevalent in an area – boys and girls aren’t necessarily naturally conceived to a 50/50 ratio.
However, in parts of India and China that favour male children, it is reported that there could be up to 120 to 140 boys for every 100 girls, a fact that many statisticians believe does show a significant practice of the abortion of female foetuses.
These conclusions have been made all around the world, with Dr Anagnostopoulos from Imperial College London saying that the only feasible answer for as to why the UK has seen a drop of 1,400 to 4,700 female births from the 2011 census, is that gender-selective abortion “is taking place” across various British communities, igniting a phenomenon of the so-called ‘lost girls’.
With gender-selective abortion being banned in many countries, even those like India and China where the practice is reportedly common practice, it seems that gendered cultural norms and discrepancies lie at the heart of this issue, and the solution is therefore social.
Through scientific research, increased levels of education and changes to sexually discriminating legislation, it seems the only way to stop these girls becoming lost, is to ensure that they are considered as culturally valuable as their brothers.