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Sex-selective abortion and Asia’s lost girls

Sex-selective abortion and Asia’s lost girls

Unsplash/Caroline Hernandez

For most expectant moms and dads, hearing the words “It’s a girl” is a cause for great joy. New parents will often begin busying themselves by decorating the baby’s room in pink and deciding between girl names for their new daughter.

But in many parts of the world, due to culturally-rooted son preference, daughters are often selectively aborted simply because their parents had wanted a boy instead.

In many Asian cultures, sons are valued to carry on the family name, receive inheritance, to perform important religious funeral rites, or to care for their parents in sickness and old age.

In generations past, most parents desiring a son would simply have more children. Others, however, resorted to nefarious methods of sex selection such as female infanticide, abandonment, or neglect.

But after ultrasound testing became widely available in Asia several decades ago, couples practicing sex selection began switching to abortion. The practice of sex-selective abortion spread like wildfire in places like China, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, the Caucasus, and the Balkan Peninsula. Over the past several decades, millions of girls have been lost to sex-selective abortion worldwide.

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In India alone, I have found that approximately 15.8 million girls have been eliminated through sex-selective abortion and other forms of prenatal daughter elimination since 1990. To put that in perspective, that is roughly the equivalent of the population of Portugal and Finland combined.

In China, the number of girls lost to sex-selective abortion is undoubtedly even higher.

Additionally, millions more girls have also been lost even after birth as a result of abandonment and neglect. Due to a low regard for the life and dignity of girls, parents often place lower priority on daughters when providing access to food, health care, and immunization, a practice which causes an unusually high number of female infant and child deaths in countries where son preference is common.

As a result, countries such as China and India are now facing serious imbalances in the numbers of men and women. Millions of men will be unable to find wives in the coming decades. By 2030, there will be 28 million men of marrying age in China than women of marrying age, according to U.N. population data.

Already, deep gender imbalances in China have led to sex trafficking of ‘brides’ from China’s neighbors including Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea. Recently, Chinese bride traffickers have also targeted impoverished minority Christian communities in Pakistan. Girls trafficked into China as ‘brides’ are often abused, raped, or forced into prostitution. In India, bride trafficking has become a problem as well.

Sex-selective abortion is a violation of girls’ fundamental right to life. It is an affront to God’s design for men and women who are created with equal dignity “in the divine image” (Genesis 1:27). Can anything be done to stop the sex-selective abortion pandemic?

At its root, the practice of sex selection is caused by the merging of two mindsets. One is cultural bias against women. The second is society’s failure to acknowledge the inviolable sanctity of every human life.

In countries where sex-selective abortion is common, women often do not enjoy equal status with men. In India, for instance, nearly a quarter of married women say they are not included in decisions affecting their own health or in family decisions like visiting relatives or making major household purchases. Women in India lag far behind men in both literacy and income. And while 79 percent of men in India are in the workforce, less than a quarter of women are.

Additionally, in son preference societies, daughters are often seen as a burden. In India, the practice of dowry is still common despite being illegal. In many Asian cultures, it is also expected that sons will care for their parents in old age. Daughters, on the other hand, become part of their husband’s family after marriage and are expected to care for their husband’s parents rather than their own. As a result, sonless parents are often left with little to no support from their children in old age. Because daughters ultimately become part of someone else’s family, it has become a saying in China and India that “raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden.”

Improving the status of women in places like China and India would go a long way in reducing son preference and the practice of sex-selective abortion. Improving women’s access to education and quality employment would help reverse the false belief that women are unable to provide meaningful financial support for their families and aging parents. This in turn could reduce the perceived need for sons. Studies have also shown that adults who view women as equal with men are less likely to have a preference for sons. Male-biased customs such as dowry and male inheritance must also be ended, and laws prohibiting these practices must be rigorously enforced.

But sex-selective abortion is not just a symptom of women’s inequality and son preference, despite what pro-abortion advocates would have us believe. Sex-selective abortion by and large does not occur in places where abortion is illegal, inaccessible, or considered immoral.

Son preference is also common in the Middle East and parts of sub-Saharan Africa like Nigeria. Despite this, sex-selective abortion is virtually non-existent in the Middle East and Nigeria, largely due to the fact that abortion is generally illegal and considered abominable in these parts of the world.

In China, India, and Vietnam, on the other hand, the practice of sex-selective abortion has become rampant. Abortion had been legal or available for almost any reason before sex-selective abortion became a problem in any of these countries. China and Vietnam have some of the highest abortion rates in the world. According to one study, more than 15 million abortions took place in India in 2015 alone.

The practice of sex-selective abortion will not end until society not only comes to respect and honor women, but also restores for itself a reverence for the sanctity of each and every human life. Women’s rights start in the womb and begin with the recognition of the most fundamental of all human rights—the right to life. Respect for the right to life will only come about when hearts and minds are changed and when laws protecting the rights of the unborn are put in place.

As Christians we are called to make justice our aim and to speak out on behalf of the weak and oppressed (Isaiah 1:17, Proverbs 31:8-9). Let us then be bold in speaking out in defense of the right to life and in defense of the equal dignity of women and girls.

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Jonathan Abbamonte is a Research Analyst at the Population Research Institute.

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