Monday, May 21, 2012

What I'm Reading Now-Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl--According to my notes, Jonathan Last's Wall Street Journal Review is what prompted me to add this book to my reading list, and, wow, has it been a journey! It took me a long time to get through this book, not because it was boring or a chore to read but because I could only read a few pages at a time before having to set the book down for a cooling-off period. This might be the most infuriating and frustrating book I've ever read. It's infuriating for the attitudes that led to and continue to support the practice of women aborting babies because they are girls; it's frustrating because there are just no easy answers. I think the epigraph at the beginning of Chapter 15 sums it up the best:
There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong.
--H.L. Mencken  
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with China's one-child policy. It's pretty self-explanatory--basically, couples are allowed one child. Although, I have to admit, I wasn't sure what the consequences of having more than one child are/were. According to the book, compliance with the policy resulted in preferential health care and education benefits (p. 144). According to a 2010 article by Hvistendahl, the consequences included forced abortions and sterilizations and excessive fines. While the one-child policy was a mostly well-intentioned attempt at population control for the good of the planet and the nation, the consequences have been dire. Most couples in Asia, when faced with the reality of only one child, would prefer a boy over a girl, plain and simple. Infanticide was common, but emerging ultrasound technology made sex-selective abortions a quick and relatively easier way for couples to make sure their one child was a boy. When it became obvious that infanticide and sex-selective abortions were taking place on a large scale, the government did loosen up its policy to say that if a couple's first child was a girl, they could try again for a boy. (After all, not even the Chinese government is unfeeling enough to make parents settle for one crappy-ass, worthless girl child. Sorry. See what I mean about needing a cooling-off period?) While this has helped to protect a lot of first-born girls, it still didn't help many would-be second-born girls.

Knowing what I knew about China's one-child policy, I went into this book prepared to be all, "Way to go, China!" while flipping it the bird, but it turns out that it's much more complicated than that. First of all, the problem is much more wide-spread than just China. Second, as it turns out, the United States and other Western nations actually had a pretty heavy hand in this whole population control thing, and it's not just because we didn't anticipate the results. (The results, by the way, are that, as of 2005, approximately 163 million females were missing from Asia. That's more than the entire female population of America.) Scientists saw the potential problems created by a society full of men with no potential mates. The British microbiologist John Postgate understood that, "Women's right to work, even to travel alone freely, would probably be forgotten transiently. Polyandry might well become accepted in some societies; some might treat their women as queen ants, others as rewards for the most outstanding (or most determined) males." (p. 102-3) Well, sign me up! Sounds good, eh, ladies? Despite this bleak view, he believed that "sex selection was advisable, for 'the only really important problem facing humanity to-day is over-population,' particularly in 'under-developed unenlightened communities.'" (p. 103). Way to take the long-view, Postgate.

The trouble now, from a U.S. perspective, is that most people here would agree that sex-selective abortions are wrong; attitudes about girls need to change. The problem is, while Americans are all pretty much in agreement that it's abhorrent to abort a fetus just because it's a girl, and we're ready to tell Asia to get its act together, we're not quite ready to lead by example. (By the way, it's not always a matter of abortions being legal/illegal; it's often a matter of enforcement.) Pro-lifers are all over this, of course. Restricting abortion on any grounds is a move in the right direction as far as they're concerned. Pro-choice folks are having a harder time though. Restrictions on *some* abortions is a pretty slippery slope to restrictions on *all* abortions. It's even hard to get people on the same page about sex selection. What if the sex selection is pro-girl? That would be progress, wouldn't it? Girls are now being valued--that's good, right? What if the reason girls are being selected for is because now poor rural families can expect to receive high bride prices from rich families trying to marry off their sons?

As it turns out, Americans are, generally speaking, pro-girl. In the latest iteration of pro-creative technology, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) allows couples seeking in vitro fertilization to choose the sex of their babies, and Americans seem to prefer girls. In fact, "[f]or the most part parents going through PGD or sperm sorting dread having a boy. Girls are the goal for 80 percent of [Huntington Reproductive Center] Fertility's patients..." (p. 256). So, as Americans, we're mostly agreed that sex selection is wrong...when it's anti-girl, and we can pretty much agree that aborting a baby just because it's a girl is wrong...but what if we just discard the boys before they are even in the womb? Like I said, no easy answers.

I posted some thoughts on when I was about half-way through the book, and you can see a lot more quotes there. This book covers so much ground and provides so much food for thought. I haven't even scratched the surface in this review. I highly recommend it, just give yourself plenty of time to get through it!



Meryl said...

All of this sex-selection stuff is fascinating. I always think it's funny to look back at historically--like, what if Henry VIII had been able to select for a boy? Think how that would have changed history--no reformation, no Elizabeth I...but is it "changing" things if it hasn't happened yet? Very "Back to the Future", yes?

Dreamybee said...

Very "Back to the Future" indeed! I love trying to wrap my head around that stuff!

Also, it's really interesting that women will still tell you they prefer boys even though they now know how difficult it will be for him to find a mate when he grows up. Most of them have this attitude that *their* son will be fine, but all those other morons out there are going to have a tough time.

Wendy said...

Sounds like it would be very interesting. I think any book that makes me feel charged up even before i read it would be good food for thought.

Dreamybee said...

Wendy-If you click on the picture of the book, it will take you to the Amazon page (disclaimer: I'm an Amazon Affiliate) and you can do the "Look Inside!" thing. It actually gives you the full prologue and some of the first chapter, which should be enough for you to know if you'd be interested in reading the rest or not.