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Cultural Sex Selection: No Harm, No Foul?

Emily Willingham asks an important question as to whether the apparent cultural preference toward having a male child in the family among Asian-Americans represents a harm–either to Asian-American girls, or simply to women generally. I’m inclined to think the latter. But we’ll let you decide:


A New York Times story reports that data on birth rates among Asian Americans hint at a bias for boys. According to the report, some Asian-American families appear to be particularly prone to selection for a boy child if they had a girl the first time around. With each successive girl, the odds that the next child will be a boy increase. Of course, the odds should be 50:50 for each birth, but by the third child, if the first two were girls, the ratio of boys to girls among Asian Americans climbs to 1.51:1, in favor of boys. The article states that this outcome results from families having opted for sex selection, either through abortion or in vitro fertilization, to ensure that they’d have a boy.

For families that opt for those interventions, all I have to ask is, “What, exactly, is wrong with having girls?” The feminist in me cries out, “Girls are just as good as boys!” And we are. End of story.

A doctor quoted in the article recognizes the cultural associations of these choices among the Asian-American population, and one expert predicts that with assimilation, the ratio will subside to the near 1:1 that Nature, in her infinite wisdom, intended. China is already having to grapple with its 120 males for every 100 females as a result of such selection. But the doctor, Jeffrey Steinberg, who is the medical director of a fertility clinic that performs sex selection procedures, also is quoted in the NYT piece as saying, “Whether we agree with it, it’s not harming anyone.”

I beg to differ. As a former girl and current woman, I’d say that countenancing these choices with an excuse like that perpetuates biological sexism. It relegates girls to second-class citizens and second-class biological entities even before conception. It’s one thing to fight for equality as a full-grown, existing woman. It’s another thing to have to view the battle as beginning pre-conception or in utero against an elusive foe of culturalism or casual acceptance of sexism, especially when we must also struggle against the unsupported assumption that artificial sexual selection does no harm. Ask China if it does harm. Ask a girl if she finds these attitudes harmful. It does do harm, harm to what should be about half of the population, if Nature were allowed to have her way.

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