Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl

Every father wants a son to carry on his name. But in places like China, where couples are limited in the number of children they can have, the importance of having a son, even if it is the only child you have, plus the advent of ultrasounds that can show a pregnant mother their child in the womb, combined with the widespread availability of therapeutic abortion, has created a world in which 160 million women are missing.

That's more than the entire female population of the United States. Imagine a US where there are no women- no mothers, no daughters... just men and boys. That will give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem.

You may feel that this isn't a problem at all- if people choose not to have female babies, what's the harm? I mean, there are six billion people in the world, so what if there are a lot fewer women?

Well, this book shows why that is a problem. For one thing, in a world with that many missing women, what happens when those boys grow up seeking marriage? Where do they go to for wives? In some places, and in many cases, this is already becoming a problem. With so few women to go around, the men of China are seeking wives in other, nearby countries. They have gotten so many wives from there that the same sort of problem is affecting the men of the countries they are importing wives from- who will the men there marry?

The price of a bride is rising, meaning that many poor men cannot afford to pay a bride price and thus, cannot marry. Men without an outlet for their affection and attention, and depressed by the thought of never being able to afford a bride, have turned their attentions to more violent and manly pursuits- gun battles and gunfights with water or paintball guns that look disturbingly similar to the real thing- and none of them want to stop at just water or paintball guns. Some of them want the real thing, and the violence in China is rising as these unmarried and unable to get married men take out their frustrations in violence, because literally, they have nothing left to lose.

But violence against women is also growing in China. Women in some places are commodities, and even the Chinese are beginning to wonder where their precious sons are going to procure a bride. And perhaps, if it was just China, that might not be a worry. But China is not the only country where this is happening- India has had a long history of just the same sort of manipulation of the Genetic lottery. While there is no compulsory government punishment for having more than one child, the government is pushing the idea of a "perfect" family with a mere two children. And just as in China, the availability of Ultrasounds and no questions asked abortions has pushed the total of male children born over that of females- leaving India in dire straits with regards to the marriage dilemma as well. And not just China and India, but other places as well that put a premium on male children as a means of carrying on the family name and legacy.

And what can we do about it? At this point, it is almost too late for some countries. The collision of choice and technology mean that entire generations of men are going to be without a wife. And while you might think that this would only raise the status of women, it's having the exact opposite effect- women are becoming a commodity and are being kidnapped or even forced into prostitution to satisfy the men who can't get a wife of their own legally. Even brides bought from elsewhere aren't having very good lives- treated as slaves by the families who buy them for their husbands- most unable to speak the language and mistreated if they should ever go against their husband- life for these women is often bleak, and while some may find love, oftentimes the families of their husband views her as an interloper should the man die.

But it's not just men who are at a premium in some areas- now women could be as well. And one of the places that is happening is in America. Women tired of boys are paying a premium to have baby girls- could this lead to the same kind of skewed gender politics as is happening elsewhere, only with a female twist? That remains to be seen. Nonetheless, women in America are not aborting boys, but instead paying for other forms of gender selection, but the implication is clear- we could be next.

I found this book intriguing and at the same time, horrifying. Places like China and India have long preferred male babies over females, but the idea that because now Ultrasound allows parents to see their offspring in the womb, and abortion is seen as clean and tidy (and Western and Advanced, and therefore good) as opposed to taking the baby out somewhere and abandoning it to the elements, selecting the sex of your unborn child is seen as no big sin or bad thing. It's like a weird science experiment: if it's not what you like, discard and try again. I've always been pro-choice, but this is over the line, even for me. We all agree that women's bodies are theirs to do with as they will, but here, the choice of all these women (and their husbands) to abort a daughter and have a son, are really screwing up society.

The idea that a child should be loved and wanted no matter its sex comes bang up against the idea that a man needs to have a son to carry on their family name, or that having a son is somehow 'manlier' than having a daughter- especially if you are limited to only having a single child. But now that there are more than 160 million men who will have to go without wives, the balance of those countries are screwed up, and there is nothing that will change that- and the Chinese who made that choice are only just beginning to realize that. Even if things do eventually get better, things will get worse before they get better- and that's not good news for those countries or the world. Men without wives, or even the hope of a wife, will get more radicalized, and marriage, by and large, calms those impulses by giving men other things to think about- like a wife and children.

This book is a fascinating and terrifying look at what sexual politics, and the politics of having babies of the parents choice, can lead to. It paints a disquieting picture of a future of society skewed in all the wrong ways by the unforeseen consequences of a leap forward in technology, and governments who use abortion on demand for population control. But it's not just abortion that has consequences- it's just one of many sex selection techniques that are fraught with problems for the future. The question is... what are we going to be able to do about it, and is China and India just the first part of the world that is going to have to deal with this problem? Highly recommended.

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