August 25, 2005

Ferreting out the female fetus.

Doctors in Belgaum, India work around legal restrictions barring them from revealing the sex of a fetus. Expect to pay more to compensate the doctors for the risks they take:
"Those who were charging Rs 200 to Rs 500 are now charging as much as Rs 2,000 for the scan alone. It is done very secretively. The result of the test is not put on paper, nor is it told over the phone, for fear of prosecution," says a doctor who did not want to be named.

"They have also started using sign language to convey the sex to the patient. They are very careful nowadays, as NGOs and journalists are conducting sting operations to catch doctors practising sex determination tests," he adds.'''

It is no coincidence that Belgaum, which has the lowest child sex ratio in the state, ranks second only to Bangalore in terms of the number of centres with ultrasound machines.

The district has a whopping 142 registered ultrasound machines. The tiny taluk of Gokak has 20 machines and Chikkodi 17. The ultrasound business in Belgaum had a humble beginning...

Ultra-sonography, which is a great boon to a pregnant woman as it can detect congenital deformities in foetuses, is misused to detect the sex of the foetus and systematically get rid of the female child.

I wonder what the sign language is. A raised finger when a penis has been detected?

What do you think of the use of sonography to assist a woman who intends to abort a female? Is it worse in a region where women who have female children are treated badly and where the female children themselves are treated badly or worse in the United States?

How often is abortion for sex selection done in our country? Does your response to it here depend on whether females are consistently targeted? If sex selection abortions are aimed at both male and female fetuses, is it more acceptable?

Do you have a different opinion of an American woman who has an abortion because she wants her second child to be the opposite sex from her first child and an American woman who believes males are superior or thinks a female child will prove more loving and tractable?


Eddie said...

Why are we trying to play God here?

Why is it that choice is a woman's rights issue, and not a human rights issue? Where's the U.N. on this? Aren't half of the fetuses murdered every year, roughly, female? They had no "choice."

jeff said...

I worry about the next generation of Indians, which will be coming on the heels of the next generation of Chinese.... which, thanks to the one child policy and rather drastic sex selection, will be very heavily weighted towards males... who will be very upset that there aren't enough girls to go around.

vnjagvet said...

Kinda puts a whole new meaning on a "mother's right to choose", doesn't it?

The Exalted said...

How often is abortion for sex selection done in our country? Does your response to it here depend on whether females are consistently targeted? If sex selection abortions are aimed at both male and female fetuses, is it momre acceptable?

Talk about your strawmen. I'd say, uh, never . next question.

Ann Althouse said...

The Exalted: Why do you assume something that we know woman do in large numbers in China and India is NEVER done here?

Patrick said...

Exalted, Ann has definitely not presented a strawman. Here is a 2003 working paper from the President's Council on Bioethics that strongly suggests that sex selection is taking place in our country (specifically noting statistically signficant changes in the sex ratio in births for Chinese and Japanese Americans).

Other fun tid-bits from the working paper:

"But we also note with some sadness that almost thirty years of progress on the matter of sexual equality has not led to any firm public policy proposals to put an end to sex control in the United States or abroad"

[footnote 6] "In a recent poll conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, nearly a quarter of American women and a third of American men said they would approve of using [preimplantation genetic diagnosis] to select the sex of a child."

The working paper is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in the topic.

Steven said...

I believe that if the fetus has reached 18 weeks, it's sufficiently neurologically developed that abortion should be illegal excapt as part of a lifesaving proceedure anyway.

Since ultrasounds cannot determine sex before this point, the side effect of such a standard is that ultrasound-prompted sex selection abortions cease to be an issue.

Drethelin said...

I believe in the long run this will even out. As there are fewer and fewer female children, eventually they will rise in value, to the point that only the richest men will be able to attract a woman, who will have most of the population to choose from.

Ann Althouse said...

Steven: Yes, but assume you're not going to get your way about that. You can still answer the question. You might just as well say, I believe no one who would not welcome any child should have sexual intercourse.

Akiva said...

Talk about an unintended reality. Here a wonderful medical tool that can save lives and pregnancies is being used for convienence and to destroy.

The sex imbalance is not a minor thing, and reaching high enough may actually drive future 'resource' wars, the resource being females.

The morality of this is a nightmare. In the West, we're talking about destroying pregnancies for personal convienence. Pick the color of your couch, pick the sex of your offspring, same thing, right? In the East, cultural imperatives and valuations become incredibly destructive when practically enabled by modern technology.

It's called the devaulation of life, putting personal preference and convienence over life itself. Treating life, or potential life, as carrying no more value than the choice of paint color.

Not a very good idea. Can't think of any good places this leads to.

mcg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Exalted said...

The idea of it sounded ridiculous, but it sounds like I spoke too soon, given the statistics offered, if they are otherwise unexplainable.


mcg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mcg said...

First of all, amniocentesis is typically done in weeks 15-18, and can provide even more conclusive determination of the sex. Thus the 18 week cutoff really isn't relevant to the question.

Having said that, it's not logically consistent to ask someone who believes abortion is wrong to answer the question, "is gender-selected abortion wrong?" To such a person no reason for elective abortion is "good". It matters not whether you're doing it because you don't want a girl or whether you can't afford another baby.

If we as a country truly believe in a right to choose, then, frankly, that's just the way it goes if people start using amnio or ultrasound to make guided choices about abortion, such as sex selection. That's just the way it goes.

A similar argument has been made with regards to homosexuality: if a reliable in utero test were discovered that could determine if a child would be homosexual, would gays become pro life? It's
not entirely hypothetical.
(Note: the link is to a gay blog, and the BlogAds reflect that.)

mcg said...

Sorry for the multiple deletions, had some trouble with that link, and I also felt I needed to post a gentle warning to the reader.

mcg said...

people start using amnio or ultrasound to make guided choices about abortion

To reply to my own comment: people already do use these tools to abort babies with medical defects. And while that in some cases may seem compassionate, does a cleft lip and palate qualify?

amba said...

There is a slippery slope here, though one that, from a social-conservative point of view, leads upwards.

My immediate reaction to sex-selection abortion is, "People should take what they get." (In countries where there's a deep cultural bias against females, obviously, the problem is much more complex than just "choice." But some of that operates subliminally here, too.)

But that's the same argument that devout Catholics use to say that if you get pregnant, you accept the baby; if you have a Down's syndrome or otherwise disabled child, that's what God sent you for a reason; if you have sex, you leave yourself open to the consequences.

Devout Catholics and probably many Evangelicals as well have an enormous mistrust of the human will in such matters. And when you look at something like aborting a healthy embryo because it's the "wrong" sex, or (this too will come) because you wanted a child with blue, not brown, eyes, or a higher IQ, or 6 inches more of height, or a certified sexual orientation, you can see why. And yet when it extends even to the decision when to conceive a child . . . even if you believed in God, mightn't you think that God created the human will for its sensible use?

This was an issue I wrestled with here in regard to embryonic stem cells, IVF and Plan B:

The real question, it seems to me, is not whether every "people seed" ought in principle to be planted, but whether human will is or is not one more legitimate factor in determining which, or when. (That is, I'm more interested in Plan B than in IVF.) The notion that hormonal fluctuations or imbalances are from God, while family planning is not, is at the very least an interesting one. The Catholic assumption, I think, is that as long as these matters are entirely beyond our control, they are heaven-sent -- whether what Heaven sends is infertility, Down's syndrome, or an eleventh child.

Where do you draw the line? To what extent should we try to plan our lives and to what extent "accept what comes"? Looking back from deep into middle age, I have to admit that the plans look less important and less influential and the accepting looks more so. But if you go at your life that way from the front end, it can be a slippery slope indeed.

John Thacker said...

There is evidence that at least some people are worried enough about the distinction. I believe that, for example, Sen. Feinstein and some others who are both generally pro-choice and feminists have voiced concerns about sex-selection abortions in particular, while favoring abortion in general.

A related question, since people brought up genetic screening and such: If someone one could come up with a fairly accurate test for whether someone would likely be of homosexual orientation, how would people feel about abortion based on that? Undoubtedly many people, even those who are "okay" with homosexuality, might wish to avoid having a child who is unlikely to give them grandchildren, etc.

Steven said...

Well, yes, Ann, I could answer the question. I merely didn't.

And still haven't, either.

Art said...

You asked how often abortions are performed for sex selection in the United States compared to China and India.

In those countries (and others) female children who are born are often abandoned or killed shortly after birth.

Maybe I'm missing something but there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence of that in the United States.

There's no guarantee that the incidence of those two proceedures whould be linked but it's worth pondering.

neo-neocon said...

Here's a longish but very interesting piece that explores some of the ethics around this issue, and the consequences of selectingly aborting children because of gender.

Finn Kristiansen said...

I always thought that reasons for getting an abortion were entirely irrelevant to the question of the right to abortion. According to the theory, it's a woman's body and her right to choose, and if this theory is not usurped by the possibility that the fetus is actually human, how should the sex of that human (without rights) hardly matter?

When I am cleaning out my fridge and getting rid of the bad food, does it matter if it's rotten eggs, or bad caviar? No. It's bad, I don't want it in my fridge, and it's my right to clean it out, distinctions be damned.

Maybe those in favor of abortion can come up with an appropriately harmonized policy that simultaneously protects females from sex selection while preserving their right do die (or de-exist) in the same proportion as their "non-human male" counterparts.

Ah finally one of those slipperly slopes--a real live one.

Sloanasaurus said...

Didn't the Spartans used to do this kind of thing 2000+ years ago?

Talk about a civilization killer...I can't even find Sparta on the map anymore.

Sloanasaurus said...

"...I always thought that reasons for getting an abortion were entirely irrelevant to the question of the right to abortion..."

Interesting point finn. When I first read this thread, I thought the same thing. However both choices completely ignore the child. Instead it is only selfishness of the mother that matters. That seems very unmotherly...

mcg said...

Sloanasaurus---a pro-choicer would say: "Well, yeah, maybe it is unmotherly. All the more reason the child is better off not being born." Not that I buy that logic.

mcg said...

John Thacker:

I believe that, for example, Sen. Feinstein and some others who are both generally pro-choice and feminists have voiced concerns about sex-selection abortions in particular, while favoring abortion in general.

She might very well believe that. But if she does, she had better lobby to reverse Supreme Court precedent, and also be prepared for NARAL to hand her hat and tell her to head home to San Francisco.

Bob said...

What do you expect? It is called a SONogramm.

Bruce Hayden said...

Outside of those ethnic communities, I suspect that abortion on the basis of sex is quite rare in this country, simply because of the way we think about these things.

I am one guy who would be more likely to abort a male than a female fetus, because I believe that the pendulum has swung to the point that it is more advantageous growing up as a girl these days in this country than as a boy. Much easier time in lower school. Higher graduation rates from high school, college, etc. Lower (successful, not attempted) suicide rate, murder rate, accidental death rate, incarceration rate, capital punishment rate, etc. (ok, higher rape rate, obviously).

Bruce Hayden said...

I do believe that the world is going to face a major demographic problem with first the Chinese, and then the Indians, in their significantly higher than usual male/female ratios.

The problem is that it is women who civilize men. Without such, post adolesecent males continue to run in juvenile gangs, terrorizing everyone in their communities. (BTW, IMHO, this is one reason that the Welfare State combined with legitimization of out of wedlock births has been so bad for the minority communities here and in Europe). As a note, this isn't unique to us - mice act the same.

The alternative to domestic terrorism of these post-juvenile gangs is to bleed off the excess males in external conflicts (i.e. war). Domestically, this is usually the best alternative.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of Chinese, and their economy is growing very quickly. So, I expect to see them being very aggressive internationally in the near future.

It will be interesting to see which way they push hardest, north or east. Russia has a much bigger nuclear arsenal, but a stagnet population and a very rich Siberia closer to China than Moscow. Taiwan though is a question of national honor.

Ultimately though, when India catches up, I expect for the major engagement to be between those two hugely populous countries. Both have the excess males, and both are about the same place in growth, and are thus competing to some extent for the same markets.

Slocum said...

Why do you assume something that we know woman do in large numbers in China and India is NEVER done here?

I wouldn't say never, but attitudes are different in the U.S. -- there's no societal bias toward wanting male (or female) babies. The only bias is toward having at least one of each sex, and technology to make that possible shouldn't skew sex ratios.

Ann Althouse said...

Slocum: Yes, but abortion is widely accepted and women are used to thinking of themselves as having a lot of choices and there is a lot of emphasis on having what you want and in having fine children. In a culture where there is a phrase "designer babies" and where women have very few children, perhaps only one, why wouldn't a significant number of women use the available tools to get what they want? Are you seeing much of a cultural, moral message going out that would make women think this is wrong?

David said...

Exactly Ann

If it is just a blob of cells, then why does it matter for what reason you choose to have an abortion?

Societal impacts, religous convictions and everything else are irrelevant.

Nick said...

Excuse me while I try not to vomit at the idea of using abortion for sex selection of all things.

Slocum said...

In a culture where there is a phrase "designer babies" and where women have very few children, perhaps only one, why wouldn't a significant number of women use the available tools to get what they want? Are you seeing much of a cultural, moral message going out that would make women think this is wrong?

Yes. I do think that the majority of even pro-choice people disapprove of abortion for sex selection (or for 'designer baby' selection). And as for manipulating the characteristics of the baby before conception, that would necessarily take you out of the bedroom and into the fertility clinic. Would significant numbers of people really switch from natural to petri-dish fertilization to get 'designer babies'? I don't think so.

Pogo said...

The step from viewing a fetus as an object to be manipulated to viewing all humans as such is very small. For example, infanticide for sex selection is not uncommon in China.

If a fetus is disposable at whim, why not children, or adults? Adopting such practices leads one inexorably from one practice to the next. Man as thing is less fearsome and more 'reasonable' when taken in these tiny steps.

tcd said...


I don't think that American women who use abortion for sex selection are any worse or better than Chinese or Indian women who do the same. The act itself is not different just because one set of women live in a society that encourages gender bias (China & India) while the other set live in a society that does not (US).

I really hope China and India reap what they sow: nations filled with spoiled little "emporers" who grow up selfish and impotent because there are no wombs for them to fertilize. Then again this may not be such a bad thing since the last thing this world needs is more Chinese communists.

Ann Althouse said...

TCD, you are wishing babies ill.

tcd said...


I'm not wishing babies ill, I'm wishing China ill. And I'm saying this as a woman of Chines/Vietnamese descent.

Kathy Herrmann said...

I think TCD is overlooking the bigger issue with China's unbalanced birth rates of boys versus girls.

In 2000, China experienced 117 boy births for every 100 girls. By 2020, that means there will be on the order of 40 million more men than women. We should all hope China finds productive outlets for all that male testosterone.

In this article ( I commented on the situation and wrote,

Might all those extra men folks looking for mates turn to other countries for a remedy? And if an influx of womenfolk cannot be met by peaceful means (imagine American or Euro mail order brides), then might it not be met by force?

In the political world, we tend to focus a lot on the start of WWIII igniting over oil — and I think there’s good cause to believe in this possibility. It would be ironic then, with our sights set on oil issues, if instead WWIII *ahem* came to a head over women. Invading other territories to capture women has, after all, been done before.

tcd said...

Roaring Tiger,

Rape and pillage may have been a popular tactic back in ancient times, but I'm having a hard time picturing hordes of invading Chinese men pillaging American cities seeing as how America has a strong military and nuclear weapons. I don't want Communist China to find an outlet for reproduction, I want them to just die off. This may be wishful thinking but a girl can still dream, can't she?

Diane said...

It is a self correcting problem. When they weed out females, they wind up with a population with mostly males. The little princes grow up and there are no princesses to marry. The few women who are left demand better treatment, and the men who won't respect and value women are left without partners.

After a few generations of this, they will be forced to fix it.

It is cruellty to their children to select based on sex, but not to the children who are killed unborn. To the boys who live.

I have no problem with this, in any society. It's stupid and ill-advised, but it's worse to have a child that you'll resent and mistreat. I say let 'em do it, and let them experience the consequences.

Diane said...


Actually it’s ultimately a motherly choice. In times of famine, it is better for a child to be killed humanely than it is to grow up crippled with poor nutrition and die after a lifetime of pain. It is better to kill a child than have it grow up with a father who doesn’t want it and might beat it. It is better for surviving children to have one of their siblings killed, than to risk starving to death because resources are spread too thin.

I believe in abortion for the sake of the child. Not the mother. If a dog faced a life of neglect and abuse, I’d put it down with mercy and love. I can’t do any other for a child.

Playing God? Perhaps. But so is having children in the first place.

mcg said...

So Diane, if we assume everything you say is valid, then it is equally valid for a born child. In fact, it might even be more valid, because with the baby born you have a more complete picture of what it's life is going to be like, and therefore a more informed choice cna be made.

So would you advocate that mothers have the right to snuff out their infant children? If so, what's the cutoff age?

mcg said...

Yes. I do think that the majority of even pro-choice people disapprove of abortion for sex selection (or for 'designer baby' selection).

A pro-choice person really has no practical standing on which to be against abortion for sex selection. Sure, they can say "it's not a good thing," but any attempt to do anything about it necessarily compromises their pro-choice position. Either abortion is a decision left to the mother, or it is a decision the state is allowed to regulate. Make your choice.

Diane said...


They did before we had safe and effective abortion. Now they have the obligation to do it before the child is born, as they can do it with a minimum of pain and before a child is fully sentient. There is no excuse for doing it after a child is born.

mcg said...

Pain is not an issue: we have anaesthesia, so the death can be fully painless. And infants are not fully sentient; even if they are, they are no more sentient than an near-full-term infant in the womb.


mcg said...

Or what if medical practice concludes that it is safer for the mother to complete the delivery of the child before the "abortion" takes place? Would you be willing to support the termination of the child within the first 5 minutes of delivery?

My point of course is that this idea that you're doing it "for the child" is an utter sham. If you truly believed that, then you would be willing to advocate for it at any point that in the child's development where the benefit remains.

A willingness to prevent mothers from doing so after the arbitrary point of childbirth makes it clear that the welfare of the child really is not the overriding principle, because you are apparently willing to condemn those children to a miserable life who have had the unfortunate circumstance of actually being born.

Smilin' Jack said...

I don't see a moral problem with this kind of sex selection, once the morality of abortion is accepted. The resulting sex-ratio imbalance will be a problem for society, though.

But the answer is not hysterical knee-jerk regulation of abortion, but rather to put science to work to solve the problems science creates. In this case, one solution would be to clone e.g. Jessica Simpson, creating a world with lots of Jessica Simpsons to correct the gender imbalance. A world with lots and lots of Jessica Simpsons...mmmmmm....

Marianne said...

The normative ratio of male to female births is 106:100; 106 males born for every 100 females. Males have a higher infant mortality rate and greater incidence of accidental death, so the ratios even themselves out over time.

But the incidence of sex selection in abortion has increased the ratio in some countries to 120 males to every 100 females. Lots of social implications here when these infants reach mating and warrior age.

An even greater question is what one is to think about deliberately taking the life of another helpless human being. It says a lot about us as a society with a tremendous commitment to civil rights that we could condone this practice.

Much has been said about our unwillingness to accept the consequences of one's behavior. This is another manifestation of the behavior invoking this criticism, not only on the reluctant mother, but on all who would encourage this act.

Sparroweye said...

Once we opened the Pandora's box
of the woman's rights take precedence
over the fetus or zygote, anything
goes in my opinion. We will now have to reap what we sow. No bible pun intended. I will always be against abortion. Now they actually have to kill a fetus that is born breathing.
I had three boys in a row. We adopted our daughter then at age eight. Best
thing we ever did. Why must people be so selfish. Many children in the world. They don't have to all come from your gene pool. I am still mesmerized by the way an XY and an XX grow the genitalia for male or female. I still say we are all default females until the testosterone is secreted. Even though we may be XY or XX. Both set of ducts are there. Only the XY has to destroy something to get what he needs. Isn't that always the way. hee hee.