Last month, Rajendra Kale, an Indian-born doctor serving as interim editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, kicked up a fuss when he published an editorial arguing that too many girls are being aborted in Canada, and that parents shouldn’t be allowed to know the gender results of ultrasound tests. The blowback was intense. People argued that a woman’s right to choose is absolute, that people have a right to balance their families, that the problem is overblown, that a ban on information wouldn’t work anyway.
Overblown or not, Canadians are obviously uneasy about sex-selective abortion. According to a recent Angus Reid poll, 66 per cent of women think there should be laws governing whether a women can abort a fetus solely because of gender.
The problem isn’t academic, and it isn’t going away. Sex selection is practised in both India and China, two of Canada’s biggest sources of immigrants. Cheap and portable ultrasound technology is now available everywhere. In Punjab, one of the most prosperous areas of India, the ratio of baby boys to baby girls has reached 120 to 100. (A normal birth ratio is 103 to 107, which is nature’s way of compensating for the fact that boys’ mortality is higher.)
It’s unlikely that more education and development will be the answer because, in India, sex selection is more popular among the affluent. Gendercide is also on the rise in China, where the ratio of boys to girls increased to 119 by 2004. (In some regions, it’s more than 150.) Leading demographer Nicholas Eberstadt calls the rising tide of sex selection “a global war against baby girls.”
In Canada, of course, gender-based abortion is completely legal. University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan, working with Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund of Columbia University, used census data to determine its patterns among immigrant groups. They published their findings in a 2009 paper, Son Preference and the Persistence of Culture. Although they didn’t try to put numbers to their findings, the data clearly show that sex selection is culturally specific and persists into the second generation.
The most revealing evidence of boy preference shows up with the third-born children of parents who had two girls first, Prof. Milligan says. The ratio of boys to girls among third-born children (when the first two were girls) was 139 among families of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese origin. For families from India, it was 190. For Sikhs, it was more than 200 – in other words, the third child was more than twice as likely to be a boy than a girl. The data show that son preference is just as strong among second-generation immigrants as among first-generation ones.
By contrast, the study found that families from the Philippines (which is largely Catholic) have normal sex ratios for all their kids. So do Canadian families who’ve been here for a few generations. Christians and Muslims, whose religions have strong prohibitions against infanticide, also have normal sex ratios.
When consulted on this issue, medical ethicists tend to say that family planning is nobody’s business, and that the rest of us should butt out. Maybe that’s the price we’ve got to pay for not reopening the abortion debate. But it’s ironic (to say the least) that the hard-won right of women to control their own reproductive futures has become a weapon for the ultimate discrimination against girls. And I’m afraid this is just the start. Some day soon, our marvellous new technologies will let us know not just the gender of our fetus but also her IQ and nose size. As tough as they are now, our moral dilemmas are about to get a whole lot worse.