Sex-selective abortion and the eradication of girls

Sex-selective abortion and the eradication of girls

“More lives are lost from violence against women, sex-selection abortion, female infanticide, suicide, egregious maternal mortality, and other sex-linked causes than were lost during all of the wars and civil strife of the 20th century.”

In an interview with feminist Gloria Steinem in 2016, actress and United Nations Goodwill Women ambassador Emma Watson raised the issue of the harm caused by pre-natal sex-selection practices, bringing to prominence a practice which is resulting in the eradication of millions of girls around the world. Watson, quoting from the book Sex and World Peace written by professor of international affairs at Texas A & M University, Valerie Hudson, highlighted numerous sexist practices occurring across the globe which are harmful, and even fatal, for women and girls. 

For many in Watson’s audience, this will have been the first time they heard of sex-selective abortion. A generation of young women who have grown up in affluent countries and who enjoy the benefits of decades of political advocacy for women’s equality may have never had to consider the situation of women in less egalitarian societies. The insidious discrimination experienced by girls in many nations where son preference is the cultural norm stands in stark contrast to the experiences of women fortunate enough to enjoy equality with men in almost all areas of public life.

A new study published in the British Medical Journal affirms the harm that sex-selection practices are wreaking on girls and women. Using modelling based on current practices, the study predicts that in “12 countries known to have skewed sex-ratios at birth, there will be an additional 4.7 million missing female births by 2030.” In a worst case scenario, this could amount to as much as 22 million missing girls by 2100. 

“Over the last 40 years, prenatal gender-biased sex selection has become the most visible consequence of son preference. Along with child marriage and female genital mutilation, sex selection is one of the key harmful practices defined by the United Nations (UN) and targeted under Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sex-selective abortions, the main mechanism behind sex selection, have been observed across a range of various countries from Southeast Europe to South and East Asia.”

Separately, a United Nations Population Fund report published in 2020 found that: 

“The preference for sons over daughters may be so pronounced in some societies that couples will go to great lengths to avoid giving birth to a girl or will fail to care for the health and well-being of a daughter they already have in favour of their son.”

The report’s authors condemn this “bias in favour of male children” which they argue is “a symptom of entrenched gender inequality, which harms whole societies.”

 The practice of prenatal sex-selection is not just restricted to overseas jurisdictions. In 2015, SBS commissioned the ABS to examine whether sex-selection might be skewing Australian birth ratios. The ABS found that, although Australia’s overall ratio of 105.7 boys born for every 100 girls was within the standard range, this ratio was skewed for families with one or more parents who had immigrated to Australia from countries where son-preference prevails.  For example, Indian-born parents had an average of 108.2 boys for every 100 girls. Parents born in China had an average of 109.5 boys born for every 100 girls.

This means that even here in Australia, there are thousands of girls missing. 

There can be fewer clear-cut women’s rights issues than the systematic killing of pre-born babies based soley on their sex. But the problems created by sex-selective abortion have population-level significance, even beyond their impact on women and girls. As the researchers of the BMJ study explain:

“A male-biased sex structure in a society could lead to demographic issues such as marriage squeeze with lack of marriageable females. Fewer-than-expected females in a population could result in elevated levels of antisocial behaviour and violence, and may ultimately affect long-term stability and social sustainable development.”

 We can see this being played out in countries that have overtly practiced gendercide since the 1970s:

China is currently feeling the ‘marriage squeeze’ as it continues to feel the effects of its four-decade one child policy, which caused many families to pursue pre-natal sex selection in order to have a son to carry the family name. The policy, which was introduced in 1979 and abolished in 2015, created a phenomenon known as ‘bare branches’, a moniker for the approximately 35 million or so ‘surplus’ marriage-age males who are unable to find partners.”

So what can be done about it?

Here in Australia, a practical step which could help limit this practice is to impose a ban on Medicare (taxpayer) funding of abortions based on sex-selection. This would be a step in the right direction in addressing this insidious practice that, based on this latest study, will result in the erasure of millions of girls from our planet over the next decade. If we are serious about ending violence towards women, we cannot ignore one of the most insidious, misogynistic and devastating forms of violence against girls. Certainly, we should not be inadvertently supporting it with public funding.