How did more than 160 million women go missing from Asia? The simple answer is sex selection -- typically, an ultrasound scan followed by an abortion if the fetus turns out to be female -- but beyond that, the reasons for a gap half the size of the U.S. population are not widely understood. And when I started researching a book on the topic, I didn't understand them myself.
I thought I would focus on how gender discrimination has persisted as countries develop. The reasons couples gave for wanting boys varies: Sons stayed in the family and took care of their parents in old age, or they performed ancestor and funeral rites important in some cultures. Or it was that daughters were a burden, made expensive by skyrocketing dowries.
But that didn't account for why sex selection was spreading across cultural and religious lines. Once found only in East and South Asia, imbalanced sex ratios at birth have recently reached countries as varied as Vietnam, Albania, and Azerbaijan. The problem has fanned out across these countries, moreover, at a time when women are driving many developing economies. In India, where women have achieved political firsts still not reached in the United States, sex selection has become so intense that by 2020 an estimated 15 to 20 percent of men in northwest India will lack female counterparts. I could only explain that epidemic as the cruel sum of technological advances and lingering sexism. I did not think the story of sex selection's spread would lead, in part, to the United States.
Then I looked into it, and discovered that what I thought were right-wing conspiracy theories about the nexus of Western feminism and population control actually had some, if very distant and entirely historical, basis in truth. As it turns out, Western advisors and researchers, and Western money, were among the forces that contributed to a serious reduction in the number of women and girls in the developing world. And today feminist and reproductive-rights groups are still reeling from that legacy.
The story begins in the mid-20th century, when several factors converged to make Western demographers worried about global population growth. Thanks to advances in public health, people were living longer than ever before. Projections released by the U.N. Population Division in 1951 suggested what the sum of all those extra years of life could be: Rapid population growth was on the horizon, particularly in the developing world. As pundits forecast a global "population explosion," anxiety mounted in policy circles, and the population control movement that coalesced brought together everyone from environmentalists to McCarthyites. Viewed through a 1960s Beltway lens, mounting numbers of people meant higher rates of poverty, which in turn made countries more vulnerable to communism.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and the Rockefeller Foundation were among the organizations that poured money into stanching the birth rate abroad, while the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the Population Council helped coordinate efforts on the ground. As these organizations backed research into barriers to couples accepting contraception, one of the obstacles quickly identified was that in most parts of the world, but particularly in fast-growing Asia, people continued to have children until they got a boy. As demographer S.N. Agarwala explained in a paper on India he presented at a 1963 IPPF conference in Singapore: "[S]ome religious rites, especially those connected with the death of the parents, can be performed only by the male child.... [T]hose who have only daughters try their best to have at least one male child." Even in the United States, surveys suggested a preference for sons.
That raised the question: What if couples could be guaranteed a son from the start? Elsewhere, scientists were working to perfect fetal sex determination tests for women carrying sex-linked disorders like hemophilia, which only manifests itself in males. (The first sex-selective abortions, performed in 1955 by Danish doctors in Copenhagen, were actually done on women carrying male fetuses.) But the technology was still incipient and required a late-term abortion. Proponents of population control began talking about nudging sex selection along. In 1967, for example, when Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Alan Guttmacher received a proposal from an Indian scientist interested in finding a way to "control SEX in human reproduction," he scrawled a note across the top in hasty red pencil, asking the organization's medical director to consider whether the research was in fact "worth encouraging."