As every woman who has had an amniocentesis test knows, the procedure is a haunting and morally uncomfortable one. A long needle penetrates the taut skin of the pregnant belly and a hard-edge white line shows up on the ultrasound screen as the needle invades the uterine sac where the fetus floats, utterly vulnerable and unaware that it is being tested for health problems. The fact that the pregnant woman has been informed that the procedure has a slight risk of miscarriage makes the moment even more emotionally freighted. If the results of my own two amnio tests had told me something was wrong, I did not know then and still don't know what I would have done (cross that bridge etc.).
Change the scene to a woman getting an amniocentesis test (or, in recent years, an ultrasound) to determine if the fetus is a boy or a girl and making the decision to abort if it's a female, and you have the core scenario of Mara Hvistendahl's brave, well researched and imminently controversial new book. Cut now to governments and non-governmental organizations promoting sex selection (overtly or wink-wink, nod-nod) as a means of controlling overpopulation because anthropologists and sociologists have determined that many people in Asia keep having babies until they get a boy, and you've arrived at the heart of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.
Hvistendahl is a Beijing-based, Chinese-speaking correspondent for Science. Her first book takes the reader into the vital intersection of population control, human rights and the deep human need to have children and pass on what is in our hearts, our families, our cultures and our legacy.
Unnatural Selection begins with Christophe Guilmoto, a French demographer, who noticed that not only were fertility rates dropping in India, but the proportion of boys to girls was rising rapidly, from a normal ratio of 105 boys to 100 girls up to 126 to 100 in at least one particularly wealthy region. In the Jiangsu province of China, Hvistendahl found a ratio of 150 to 100. She calculates that 163 million females, more than the entire population of females in the United States, are missing over the past few decades.
Hvistendahl structures her story and her case around the personal narratives of demographers like Guilmoto, Chinese husbands making use of new wealth, Indian medical students, politicians such as Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and kidnapped young women imprisoned as prostitutes or sold as brides to men in regions where there are not enough women. She writes in a colourfully anecdotal style, showing her reader that the subject of demography, far from dry and dusty, is like a juggernaut gathering up history, science, geopolitics, biology, anthropology, sociology and economics into itself as it hurtles toward the future.
There are three weaknesses in the case Hvistendahl wants to build.
The most important is that she fails to convincingly make the argument that the populations of China and India could have been kept anywhere near their current numbers (by 2030, 16 per cent less than without intervention) without sex selection. Had the 163 million missing females been born, their number would have doubled, probably tripled, when they grew up and had children. Hvistendahl does not adequately address the problems that would have arisen from having half a billion more mouths to feed.
Hvistendahl makes the argument that economic development, access to contraception and educating women lower the birth rate as effectively as authoritarian population control, sex selection and abortion, but she does not establish how long that approach would take, nor does she address the fact that the new economic wealth in India and China is directly tied to lower fertility. Without lower fertility, where would economic development come from?
Second, Hvistendahl refers repeatedly to the enormous and alarming damage sex selection is doing to the world, but she doesn't explain what that damage is until the last third of the book. By then, the build-up has been too big for the damage she does point to, much of it still only potential: There are now a lot of single young men ("surplus men," she calls them) who are potentially volatile (single, childless men have higher testosterone levels than married fathers) and can't find mates.
Societies with a high ratio of males are bad for women and come with increased prostitution, kidnapping, bride buying and reduction of women in the work force, as those of child-bearing age are pressed into having children and raising families - and bad for the societies in that the increased levels of high-testosterone frustration can lead to violence, war and political instability.