When Technology and Autonomy Collide


Before our first grandchild was born, we were often asked, “Do they know what they’re going to have?” Surprisingly, our children made a countercultural and delightful decision to let the baby’s sex be a surprise. Even the doctor delivering the baby was excited.  In the US, most parents routinely use ultrasound to find out their baby’s sex, so they can plan nursery décor and shower-gift wish lists. However, in India and China, ultrasound plays a more sinister role: targeting baby girls.

Female feticide—sex selective abortion—is growing in Asia and the Middle East, and spreading to Eastern European and former Soviet bloc countries.[1]  Female feticide is illegal in India, yet at least 8 million girls have been aborted in the last decade alone following an amniocentesis or ultrasound.[2]  Worldwide, sex selective abortion has eliminated the equivalent of 1/3 of the population of the United States.

Sons are preferred in many countries. In some cultures, sons carry the family line, inherit the family property, and are responsible to financially support and care for parents in their old age.  In India, a daughter is a financial burden, due to the ever-increasing dowry demands of the groom’s family. She also has a lower wage earning potential.[3]  Women are pressured or abused, forcing them to abort their daughters for the good of the family.

One unhappy outcome of female feticide is a surplus in the number of males in the population. China’s sex ratio is imbalanced, with 120 males for every 100 females. In one region, there are130 boys for every 100 girls, well above the normal ratio of 105 to 100.[4] One out of five men in China cannot find a wife, leaving them socially marginalized. Desperate young men may buy a bride from a neighboring country such as Burma, where two-thirds of human trafficking cases involve women smuggled into China for the purpose of forced marriage.[5]

Poverty is not the culprit here. In India, abortion following ultrasound began among the upper classes. In both China and India, sex ratios are most skewed in wealthy, well-educated regions.

Sex selective abortion is the unintended—and evil—consequence of the intersection of technology and individual autonomy. Ultrasound technology was developed for medical purposes such as scanning bones, but it is being used as a “search and destroy” tool against unborn girls. Autonomous “choice” was sold to women as necessary for equality and dignity, yet is it the primary reason millions of girls are “missing,” aborted because they were the “wrong” sex. Paradoxically, advocates of abortion who are alarmed about this trend cannot bring themselves to question abortion itself.

For most of us, knowing the baby’s sex makes planning for the arrival more fun, and deepens personal bonding with the baby in the womb. For others, ultrasound guides a deadly choice. By the way, our grandchild is a boy. His life was saved by medical technology, but that’s a story for another day.

[1]  Mara Hvistendahl. Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. (New York: Public Affairs, 2011).

[2] “India’s Unwanted Girls,” BBC News, May 22, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13264301 (accessed January 16, 2012).

[3] Therese Hesketh and Zhu Wei Xing, “Abnormal Sex Ratios in Human Populations: Causes and Consequences,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (2006): 13272.

[4] Wei Xing Zhu, Li Lu, and Therese Hesketh, “China’s Excess Males, Sex Selective Abortion, and One Child Policy: Analysis of Data from 2005 National Intercensus Survey,” British Medical Journal 338 (2009): b1211.

[5] Ibid, 13273-13274. Cf. Juliet Shew Gaung, “Forced Marriages Driving Human Trafficking, UN Says,” http://www.mmtimes.com/2010/news/512/n51206.html (accessed January 16, 2012).


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