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Abortion and Gendercide

Around the globe, abortion is shrinking the female population at an alarming rate.

Abortion and Gendercide: Around the globe, abortion is shrinking the female population at an alarming rate.

Page Summary:

No matter what you believe about the ethics of abortion, there is no denying the fact that abortion has become the driving force in eliminating females around the globe. Estimates put the global gender gap somewhere between 100 and 200 million people.

The term "gendercide" is not a new one. It was first used publicly in 1985's Gendercide: The Implications of Sex Selection by Mary Anne Warren. She coined the term to describe the systematic killing of members of a certain gender. Historically, that gender has been female. Indian economist, Amartya Sen, published a paper in 1990 placing the number of "missing women" in Asia and North Africa at more than 100 million,1 but it is only recently that the topic of gendercide has received much focused attention. This social awakening can be attributed in part to the 2009 publication of Half the Sky, and a 2010 issue of The Economist. The lead editorial from The Economist's "Gendercide" issue opens this way:

IMAGINE you are one half of a young couple expecting your first child in a fast-growing, poor country. You are part of the new middle class; your income is rising; you want a small family. But traditional mores hold sway around you, most important in the preference for sons over daughters. Perhaps hard physical labour is still needed for the family to make its living. Perhaps only sons may inherit land. Perhaps a daughter is deemed to join another family on marriage and you want someone to care for you when you are old. Perhaps she needs a dowry.

Now imagine that you have had an ultrasound scan; it costs $12, but you can afford that. The scan says the unborn child is a girl. You yourself would prefer a boy; the rest of your family clamours for one. You would never dream of killing a baby daughter, as they do out in the villages. But an abortion seems different. What do you do?

For millions of couples, the answer is: abort the daughter, try for a son. In China and northern India more than 120 boys are being born for every 100 girls. Nature dictates that slightly more males are born than females to offset boys’ greater susceptibility to infant disease. But nothing on this scale...

It is no exaggeration to call this gendercide. Women are missing in their millions—aborted, killed, neglected to death.2

Abortion's role in the global disappearance of women presents a significant problem for the feminist community, or at least that portion of the feminist community that advocates abortion. And it's a dilemma shared by the authors of Half the Sky, who make brief mention of abortion, but are unable to mask their "pro-choice" sympathies. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, the husband and wife authors and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, note their willingness to be politically incorrect in calling out the atrocious treatment of women in Muslim nations,3 but they repeatedly refuse to call out abortion. That's not to say the book is without merit. It has plenty of merit, but it seems to go out of its way to not take a hard look at abortion, except to defend its necessity. 

In the book's introduction, we read that, "since the 1990s, the spread of ultrasound machines has allowed pregnant women to find out the sex of their fetuses—and then get abortions if they are female."4 But in the very next paragraph, Kristof and Wudunn criticize the efforts in China and India to prevent sex-selection abortions. Here's their rationale: "Research shows that when parents are banned from selectively aborting female fetuses, more of their daughters die as infants."5 They then reference the work of Nancy Qian, an economist at Brown University, and declare that, "on average, the deaths of fifteen infant girls can be avoided by allowing one hundred female fetuses to be selectively aborted."6 This is such a incomprehensible conclusion, that it is impossible to account for apart from a predetermined allegiance to the sanctity of abortion. Why else would these champions of women's rights suggest that killing 100 female fetuses is a reasonable means of saving 15 female infants? If the goal is to restore a balanced population, such fetal-bigotry makes absolutely no sense. And even if Qian's beliefs are correct, the elimination of sex-selection abortion still spares 85 of the 100 girls who would otherwise have been eliminated!

The author's dilemma is the same one faced by a whole world of people who argue that abortion is necessary for the maintenance of gender equality, but are now confronted with the reality that abortion has become a driving force in the catastrophic decline of the female population. There are lots of people who have no problem with the "amoral" elimination of a human fetus, but are much less comfortable with the fact that most of the fetuses being eliminated are females. The ethics of abortion notwithstanding, this bulging gender gap threatens terrible things for the future. Even if you believe abortion is morally justified, the pending social crisis it's contributing to is no less real.

Niall Ferguson, in a 2011 article for Newsweek, reports the following:

In China today, according to American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, there are about 123 male children for every 100 females up to the age of 4, a far higher imbalance than 50 years ago, when the figure was 106. In Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hainan, and Anhui provinces, baby boys outnumber baby girls by 30 percent or more. This means that by the time today’s Chinese newborns reach adulthood, there will be a chronic shortage of potential spouses. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one in five young men will be brideless. Within the age group 20 to 39, there will be 22 million more men than women. Imagine 10 cities the size of Houston populated exclusively by young males.7

What are the practical consequences of having such a male-dominated population? Ferguson notes that "history offers a disquieting answer." He speculates that in Asia, "this bachelor generation will be a source of domestic instability," that could break out in "Brazilian-style crime or Arab-style revolution."8 The Economist puts it this way: "within ten years, China faces the prospect of having the equivalent of the whole young male population of America, or almost twice that of Europe’s three largest countries, with little prospect of marriage, untethered to a home of their own and without the stake in society that marriage and children provide."9 Ferguson concludes his article by warning his readers to, "lock up your daughters." Even a cursory reading of Half the Sky makes it abundantly clear that the "chronic shortage" of marriageable women has not garnered more favorable treatment for those who've survived. The book opens with a brutal scene of kidnap, rape, and imprisonment, and it only gets worse from there. In her book review for The New York Times, Irshad Manji writes of Half the Sky that, "absorbing the fusillade of horrors (in the book) can feel like an assault of its own.10

Though Half the Sky diverts much attention away from abortion, the three primary abuses it documents (sex trafficking / forced prostitution, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality) can't nearly account for the sheer volume of missing women in the world. Without abortion, the numbers don't add up. American economist, Emily Oster, tried to account for this numeric shortfall by suggesting that much of our population disparity may have less sinister roots than were suggested by Amartya Sen. Her Harvard doctoral thesis argued that females in the womb are far more susceptible to Hepatitis B than are their male counterparts and suggested that as many as 50 million of the "missing women" were simply miscarried in countries with a high incidence of Hepatitis B.11 After further study, she published a follow-up paper to rescind these conclusions.12

Half the Sky tells us that 39,000 baby girls die each year in China because parents don't give them the same medical attention as boys. In India, more than 4,000 "bride burnings" (a practice every bit as gruesome as it sounds) take place each year. In Pakistan, five thousand women and girls have been doused in kerosene and burned over the last nine years. One fifth of the missing girls in India are linked to a lack of vaccinations. Worldwide, 536,000 women perished in pregnancy or childbirth in 2005. On average, 30,000-130,000 new cases of fistula develop each year in Africa. Women who can't afford treatment are often banished from the village, left to eventually starve or die of infection. Though sex slavery is not immediately fatal, AIDS looms as a very real threat to the lives of all who are so imprisoned. Without question, these are egregious atrocities, but in almost every case, death is an indirect result of the abuse, and the cumulative loss of life pales in comparison to lives lost to abortion. Even the country with the highest maternal death rate in the world, Sierra Leone, has a mortality rate around 2%. The mortality rate of girls being aborted is close to 100%.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was much more honest about abortion's contribution to the problem in her opinion piece for The New York Times. She notes that, "one United Nations estimate says from 113 million to 200 million women around the world are demographically 'missing.'" The first causal factors she lists are "selective abortion and infanticide."13 The cover story from The Economist's "Gendercide" issue states that China's one-child policy is only part of the global problem and can't explain similar trends in other countries. According to the article, the real problem is, “the fateful collision between overweening son preference, the use of rapidly spreading prenatal sex-determination technology and declining fertility.” The article goes on to debunk the claim that female births are simply underreported, declaring that, "sex-selective abortion, not under-registration of girls, accounts for the excess of boys."14 In India, the article tells us, "Parents who wanted a son, but balked at killing baby daughters, chose abortion in their millions."15 The pairing of ultrasound scanning and abortion has changed everything.

Also from the "Gendercide" issue of The Economist is a short piece on Chinese author, Xinran (who chooses to only use her first name). Xinran has travelled the country collecting stories about the dreadful fates of Chinese baby girls. She writes of policemen preventing the rescue of a newborn girl left to die in a "slops pail," and midwives describing the "art" of strangling baby girls with their umbilical cord and calling them "stillborn." When Xinran pleads with an older woman to save a newborn baby girl, the woman replies, "It's not a child, it's a girl baby, and we can't keep it… Girl babies don't count."16 We shudder at such bigotry and callousness, but similar rationales are used to justify abortion in the West. Substitute "girl baby" for "fetus" and the argument becomes standard, "pro-choice" fare.

At one point in Half the Sky, Kristof and Wudunn point a finger at the Western world for not doing enough to protect women around the globe. They admit that the West is not directly responsible for sex slavery, but assert that only Western pressure will bring the problem to an end.17 Even though foreign countries are often hostile to such involvement ("cultural interference," they would call it), the authors believe Western nations are no less obligated to intervene. In this context, they are clearly not pro-choice. In fairness, the authors also point a finger at themselves, noting that, "we journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls"18—not least of which is the violence of abortion.

In a telling exchange from chapter two, Kristof quotes an Indian officer who spoke with him at the Nepali border crossing. When he asked why Indian guards are on the alert for terrorist activity and pirated goods but "don't worry" about girls being trafficked, the guard responded: "It's unfortunate. These girls are sacrificed so that we can have harmony in society. So that good girls can be safe" (he had already declared that prostitution was inevitable and necessary to placate 18-30 year-old Indian men who were too young to get married). When the author pointed out that good girls are being trafficked too, the guard quickly clarified, "Oh, yes, but those are peasant girls. They can't even read."19

Abortion, too, sacrifices innocent and helpless victims for "harmony in society." And just as the guard defends the practice of sex slavery by pointing out that the victims are peasants who can't even read, many justify abortion by pointing out that the victims are fetuses who can't even think. In the authors' own words, "the victims are perceived as discounted humans."20

Though Kristof and Wudunn originally embraced the idea that outlawing prostitution was an unrealistic way to combat sex slavery (comparing such efforts to the prohibition of alcohol), they now reject the "legalize and regulate it" model—stating that "pragmatic harm reduction" simply hasn't worked. They point to Sonagachi and Mumbai as evidence that the "crackdown" model is much more successful at reducing forced prostitution.21 They also reference Sweden, who outlawed "the purchase of sexual services" in 1999 and has seen a dramatic decline in sex trafficking.22 Because Sweden holds the view that prostitutes are "more a victim than a criminal," it is not a crime in Sweden to offer the sale of sexual services, only to buy them—meaning those who solicit prostitutes can be arrested. Prostitutes themselves cannot. 

A year later, the Netherlands took the opposite approach, legalizing prostitution in an attempt to curb forced prostitution. Instead of achieving the desired result, both voluntary and forced prostitution have increased. It is not hard to see the connection to abortion. Abortion advocates frequently argue that keeping abortion legal and regulated is the best way to reduce its frequency. That has certainly not been the case historically, and it doesn't seem to be the case with sex slavery. And just as Sweden, makes a distinction between those who sell sex and those who buy sex, so would any future law against abortion make a distinction between women seeking an abortion and doctors performing an abortion. Pregnant women would almost certainly not be prosecuted.

Kristof and Wudunn are not naive to the impossibility of completely eliminating sex slavery any more than abortion opponents are naive to the impossibility of completely eliminating abortion. But listen to their conclusion: "Some degree of prostitution will probably always be with us, but we need not acquiesce to widespread sexual slavery… Even when a social problem is so vast as to be insoluble in its entirety, it's still worth mitigating."23 They then point out that changing laws will never be enough, and may not even be possible, until the culture itself is changed: "Our focus has to be on changing reality, not changing laws."24 How do they suggest changing culture? Through education, which is exactly how we're trying to change the cultural perception of abortion. But "education" is not a magic bullet. It's the content of that education that ultimately determines which way a society will go. 

Near the end of The Economist's article on Xinran, we read the following:

One might perhaps object that some of Xinran’s stories are not as typical as she implies: she blames the unflinching “son preference” of traditional Confucian culture for the families’ decisions to abandon or kill their daughters. But, in fact, the number of “missing girls” is highest in richer, better-educated provinces: prenatal ultrasound scans and selective abortion have proved even deadlier to girls than the cruel dictates of village elders.25

The Economist's "Gendercide" cover story adds this:

The spread of fetal-imaging technology has not only skewed the sex ratio but also explains what would otherwise be something of a puzzle: sexual disparities tend to rise with income and education, which you would not expect if “backward thinking” was all that mattered. In India, some of the most prosperous states—Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat—have the worst sex ratios. In China, the higher a province’s literacy rate, the more skewed its sex ratio. The ratio also rises with income per head.26

The targeted abortion of girls around the world and the abortion of boys and girls in the West are problems that don't simply go away by improving the economy and increasing the literacy rate. Kristof and Wudunn argue passionately for more education only to concede that, "neither economic development nor the rise of education and a middle class seems to have affected the predilection for aborting female fetuses."27 So long as the predominant, cultural worldview "educates" its people to believe that certain genders or races or ages are inferior, all manner of injustices will persist. Combatting those injustices will require a specific kind of education and a specific kind of legislation—one that is willing to legislate against certain popular but abusive choices. As Kristof and Wudunn say in regard to maternal mortality, "The best argument to stop it... isn't economic but ethical."28

It is virtually impossible to address the problem of sex-selection abortions without first addressing the problem of abortion. Even Kristof and Wudunn make the tired plea that "pro-choice and and pro-life camps" should work together "to reduce the number of abortions."29 Never mind that their idea of working together seems to be for the pro-life camps to embrace pro-choice policies. The point is their concession that reducing the number of abortions is something we should all be pursuing. If there is nothing wrong with abortion, why should it be reduced? If there's nothing wrong with abortion, why should it matter how many Chinese or Indian girls are aborted each year? But even if you continue to maintain that abortion has a positive impact on the lives of pregnant women, there's no getting around the toll it's taking on the female population worldwide. And that's a global crisis that must be addressed—no matter what you believe about the ethics of abortion itself.

This page was last updated on December 14, 2017. To cite this page in a research paper, visit: "Citing Abort73 as a Source."


  1. Amartya Sen. "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing." The New York Review of Books 37.20, Dec 20, 1990: http://ucatlas.ucsc.edu/gender/Sen100M.html
  2. The Economist. "Gendercide." Mar 4, 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/15606229
  3. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. Half the Sky. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), Kindle for Mac, Loc 2836.
  4. Ibid, Loc 151.
  5. Ibid, Loc 155.
  6. Ibid, Loc 157.
  7. Niall Ferguson. "Men Without Women: The ominous rise of Asia's bachelor generation." Newsweek, Mar 6, 2011: http://www.newsweek.com/2011/03/06/men-without-women.html
  8. Ibid.
  9. The Economist. "The Worldwide War on Baby Girls." Mar 4, 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/15636231
  10. Irshad Manji. "Changing Lives." The New York Times, Sep 17, 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/books/review/Manji-t.html?scp=3&sq=gendercide&st=cse
  11. Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt. "The Search for 100 Million Missing Women." Slate, May 24, 2005: http://www.slate.com/id/2119402/
  12. Emily Oster: Assumption-busting economist. "Speakers Bio." TED, accessed May 19, 2011
  13. Ayaan Hirsi Ali. "Women go 'missing' by the millions." The New York Times, Mar 24, 2006: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/24/opinion/24iht-edali.html?scp=9&sq=gendercide&st=cse
  14. The Economist. "The Worldwide War on Baby Girls." Mar 4, 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/15636231
  15. Ibid.
  16. The Economist. "Sobs on the Night Breeze." Mar 4, 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/15603722
  17. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. Half the Sky. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), Kindle for Mac, Loc 650.
  18. Ibid, Loc 123.
  19. Ibid, Loc 633.
  20. Ibid, Loc 641.
  21. Ibid, Loc 671.
  22. Ibid, Loc 774.
  23. Ibid, Loc 820, 1014.
  24. Ibid, Loc 792.
  25. The Economist. "Sobs on the Night Breeze." Mar 4, 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/15603722
  26. The Economist. "The Worldwide War on Baby Girls." Mar 4, 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/15636231
  27. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. Half the Sky. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), Kindle for Mac, Loc 3828.
  28. Ibid, Loc 2363.
  29. Ibid, Loc 2557.

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