Sex-selective Abortion Bans: A New Strategy to Limit Women’s Access

June 7, 2012 • Family Planning, Reproductive Health, United States, Daily Email Recap

The issue of sex-selective abortion is hitting the mainstream media in the United States. This RH Reality Check essay (originally from Guttmacher Institute) will provide you with an introduction to the issue. See:

Sex-selective Abortion Bans: A Disingenuous New Strategy to Limit Women’s Access to Abortion

by Sneha Barot
May 31, 2012 – 9:27am

Among the widening panoply of strategies being deployed to restrict U.S. abortion rights-ostensibly in the interest of protecting women-is the relatively recent push to prohibit the performance of abortions for the purpose of sex selection. Sex-selective abortion is widespread in certain countries, especially those in East and South Asia, where an inordinately high social value is placed on having male over female children. There is some evidence-although limited and inconclusive-to suggest that the practice may also occur among Asian communities in the United States.

A broad spectrum of civil rights groups and reproductive rights and justice organizations stand united in opposition to these proposed abortion bans as both unenforceable and unwise. Advocates for the welfare of Asian American women are particularly adamant in protesting that such laws have the potential to do much harm and no good for their communities. Moreover, they argue that proposals to ban sex-selective abortion proffered by those who would ban all abortions are little more than a cynical political ploy and that the real problem that needs to be addressed is son preference-itself a deeply seated and complex manifestation of entrenched gender discrimination and inequity.

Understanding the Root Problem…

Son preference is a global phenomenon that has existed throughout history. Today, in some societies, son preference is so strong and sex-selective practices so common that, at the population level, the number of boys being born is much greater than the number of girls. This is notably the case in a number of South and East Asian countries, primarily India, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, as well as in such former Soviet Bloc countries in the Caucuses and Balkans as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Serbia.

Particularly in India and China, a deep-seated preference for having sons over daughters is due to a variety of factors that continue to make males more socially and economically valuable than females. Inheritance and land rights pass through male heirs, aging parents depend on support from men in the absence of national security schemes, and greater male participation in the workforce allows them to contribute more to family income. Women, on the other hand, require dowries and leave the natal family upon marriage, which make them an unproductive investment. Moreover, only sons carry out certain functions under religious and cultural traditions, such as death rituals for parents.

At the individual and family level, the primary consequence of son preference is the intense-and intensely internalized-pressure placed on women to produce male children. In the past, when having a large number of children was desirable and the norm, one option was to simply allow a family to grow until a son-or the requisite number of sons-was born; even so, female infanticide-the most drastic possible expression of son preference-was not uncommon. Today, son preference is jutting up against widespread desires for smaller families and, at least in China, strict population policies that limit family size to one or two children. And, of course, new technologies such as ultrasound imaging to determine fetal sex, together with sex-selective abortion, have facilitated the preference for and practice of choosing boys without having to resort to infanticide.

At the macro level, the results of entrenched son preference are highly skewed national sex ratios, which in turn can have decidedly negative social consequences-again, largely for women and girls. Societies with heavily lopsided sex ratios may face a dearth of women for marriage, which could increase the likelihood of coerced marriages or bride abduction, trafficking of women and girls, and rape, and other violence against women and girls. A large cohort of young, single men may lead to more crime-ridden, violent communities, and general societal insecurity, especially in cultures where social standing is closely connected with marital status and fatherhood.

Under normal circumstances, the sex ratio at birth usually ranges from 102-106 live male births per 100 live female births.1 (Boys are biologically more likely to suffer child mortality, so sex ratios at birth are naturally higher.) The sex ratio at birth in China has been growing at an alarming rate over the last three decades. The ratio of boys per 100 girls jumped between 1982 and 2005, from 107 to 120.2 At the regional level, the disparity is even sharper, as the ratio in some provinces is higher than 130.3 The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicts that by 2020, China will have 30-40 million more boys and young men under age 20 than females of the same age.4 India, too, is facing a national crisis with its sex ratios.

The Indian census does not publish sex ratios at birth, but rather child sex ratios, expressed as the number of females below age seven for every 1,000 males. The last four census surveys point to rapidly increasing disparities: The child sex ratio dropped from 962 (girls to 1,000 boys) in 1981 to 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001,5 and according to the latest census, in 2011, the ratio decreased further, to 914.6

As in China, India has considerable fluctuations across different regions and localities. For example, the northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab are notorious for their exceedingly disparate ratios, at 830 and 846, respectively, with some districts dipping into the 770s.6 In contrast, south India has normal sex ratios. In this regard, it is worth noting that the status of women in parts of south India is higher than in the rest of the subcontinent; gender discrimination-and thereby son preference-apparently is not motivating women and their families to use the same accessible technology for sex-selection purposes in these regions.

Finally, a discernible pattern among most countries with skewed sex ratios is that disparities increase with birth order. In other words, even in China, the sex ratio is near normal for first-order births;3 however, it increases dramatically for second-order births and sky-rockets for third-order or later births.1 This evidence shows that families will accept a daughter if she is a first-born child, but then will take inordinate steps to guarantee that the second one is a son. For example, in certain provinces in China, the sex ratio for third-order births exceeds a whopping 200 (boys per 100 girls).3

…And Effectively Addressing It

Women’s rights advocates, researchers, multilateral agencies and affected governments have been working on the problem of son preference and the outcome of imbalanced sex ratios for many years; however, with the limited exception of South Korea (see box, page 21), relatively little headway has been made. That said, recent international agreements provide insights into how-and how not-to move forward.

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