Boy or girl? Pink or blue? Gender selection has historically existed in some form or another in many cultures, but thanks to technological advances in recent years, it has become an accepted and widespread practice in a number of developing countries.
The availability of cheap ultrasound scans in Asian countries within the last 20 years has made it possible for even the poorest woman to discern the sex of her unborn child.
Sex selection in countries such as China and India is now achieved mainly through ultrasound, followed by an abortion if the fetus is female. While the natural sex ratio is about 105 boys per 100 girls, in India it has climbed to 113 boys per 100 girls, and up to 156 boys per 100 girls in some regions.
The current sex ratio in China is about 120 boys per 100 girls, and in the more prosperous provinces it's even higher. Although both countries have banned sex selective abortion, India back in 1994 and China more recently, it is still widely practised.
The reasons for the high abortion rates of girls are many and varied. Both India and China, as well as other countries that use sex selective abortions widely, have a long-standing preference for boys, especially in rural areas. It often comes down to practicalities: a son can work the farm, carry on the family name, and look after elderly parents, whereas a daughter will become part of her husband's family after she gets married.
In India, where the cost of a dowry for a daughter can be prohibitive, financial pressure is often a reason for resorting to sex selective abortion or infanticide. A 2006 study published in the British medical journal, the Lancet, estimated that up to half a million female fetuses are aborted every year in India.
But China's strict one-child policy, implemented in 1979 to reduce the population, has severely upset the gender balance in that country. A January report in the China Daily estimated that there will be 30 million more men than women of marriageable age in China by 2020, leading to possible widespread social unrest.
Already, the skewed sex ratio has resulted in a rise in the kidnapping and trafficking of women, both within the country and internationally. Mail order bride services have mushroomed, which, for a fee of up to $2,400, import wives for Chinese men from other countries, especially Burma. Joseph D'Agostino, vice president for communications with the Virginia-based Population Research Institute (PRI), calls the one-child policy "a massive violation of human rights" which affects both women and men.
"When it comes to sex selective abortion, it's something that's leading to grave social problems—the extermination of tens of millions of girls," says D'Agostino. "And of course it's bad for the boys too because they're going to grow up and not be able to get married. It seems to be against everyone's interests except the very elite and the communist government that runs China, which has its own agenda and its own goals."
D'Agostino says Beijing has now become aware of the problems of sex selection, and recently introduced cash bonuses for families who have girls, but the gap in the boy/girl ratio is still widening. Meanwhile, the one-child policy will remain firmly in place for another 50 years, the goal being to reduce China's population from the present 1.2 billion to 600 million.
Because of the policy, pregnant women are subjected to harassment, financial penalties, and forced abortions and sterilization, often in the late stages of pregnancy. Chen Guangchen, a blind activist who has fought against the one-child policy, said last October that more than 120,000 women in Shandong province alone were at that time forced to undergo sterilizations and abortions. Forced abortion and sterilization is enforced in Tibet as well.
The Dying Rooms, a shocking British documentary that created an outcry around the world, showed children abandoned in some of China's state orphanages, uncared for and left to die in unimaginable misery and squalour, victims of the one-child policy. D'Agostino says 95 percent of China's orphans are girls.
In 2005, a U.N. report stated that the number of "missing" girls resulting from abortion and female infanticide is now at an estimated 200 million worldwide. In an effort to combat the problem, the U.S. last week sponsored a resolution at the U.N.'s Commission on the Status of Women calling on states to eliminate infanticide and gender selection.
But the resolution was withdrawn, thanks to opposition from China, India, Mexico and other countries—one of which apparently was Canada. Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer with the Campaign Life Coalition which had a representative present at the two-week conference, said the resolution contained language that the Canadian delegation didn't agree with, and so they maneuvered against it.
"The Canadians are constantly trying to get the language of women's rights into everything, and they claim that they're doing this as a matter of justice. But their goal it seems is to get a universal right to abortion—that's the bottom line for them," says Douglas.
Although the Department of Foreign Affairs says that "Canada did not block the resolution," Samantha Singson asserts that, although she didn't attend the closed session, she "got it from sources in the negotiating room that Canada worked very hard to ensure that the resolution would be withdrawn."
Douglas says she was surprised that one of the countries that backed the resolution was South Korea, a country with a strong preference for sons. But maybe it's not so surprising, given that the South Korean government, recognizing that there's a severe gender imbalance in the country because of sex selective abortions, has been attempting to change public opinion with a "Love Your Daughter" campaign. Meanwhile, South Korean men have been traveling to other countries, primarily Vietnam, to find a wife.
India has been trying to turn the trend around with new laws introduced in 2002 that prohibit the disclosure of the sex of the fetus or advertising services that determine the sex of the fetus. But so far, only one doctor has been charged. Last year, China dropped a proposal to impose fines and prison terms for sex selective abortion.
As well as in many Asian countries, gender selective abortions are common in Cuba, Venezuela and Pakistan, and also within immigrant communities in Canada and the United States. A recent Western Standard article reported that some Asian immigrants are seeking sex selective abortions in Canada, and being accommodated by clinics in B.C. and Ontario. A B.C. clinician interviewed for the story estimated she sees women who want to abort female fetuses at a rate of about one per week.
But sex selective abortion is not within the realm of acceptance for most Canadians. A 1993 Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies found that 90 per cent of Canadians were uncomfortable with the idea of gender selective abortions.
And although many who are "pro-choice" draw the line at aborting a fetus because of gender preference, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has issued a position paper on sex selection stating, "It is important to remember that we cannot restrict women's right to abortion just because some women might make decisions we disagree with."
One of the latest high-tech sex selection methods to appear in the U.S. is a sperm sorting technique which is marketed as a way to achieve "family balancing" or "family completion." Demographers and women's rights groups are concerned that an increased acceptance of gender selection in the U.S. will serve to exacerbate the problem in countries where "son preference" prevails.
D'Agostino, who believes the gender imbalance "is turning into a huge global problem that's getting worse every year," says his organization would like to see sex selective abortion outlawed in the U.S. He says it should be more prominent on the U.N.'s agenda, and that countries need to work to "change the culture around this and hopefully change the laws."
"There needs to be some sort of global approach to this because it's fast becoming a social problem," says D'Agostino. "It's not only immoral, it's impractical, and people need to have a different mentality."