Sex selection hit China the same year the AIIMS experiments began. The country accepted Western aid belatedly, in 1979. But after years of being kept out of the Middle Kingdom, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and IPPF jumped at the opportunity to play a role in the world's most populous country, with UNFPA chipping in $50 million for computers, training, and publicity on the eve of the one-child policy's unveiling. Publicly, officers at both UNFPA and IPPF claimed China's new policy relied on the Chinese people's exceptional knack for communalism. But, according to Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly's account of the population control movement, Fatal Misconception, in January 1980 IPPF information officer Penny Kane privately fretted about local officials' evident interest in meeting the new birth quotas through forced abortions. Accounts of those eventually leaked out, as did reports of sex-selective abortions. In 1982, Associated Press correspondent Victoria Graham warned that those augured a spreading trend. "These are not isolated cases," she wrote, adding: "Demographers are warning that if the balance between the sexes is altered by abortion and infanticide, it could have dire consequences."
Today, some of those dire consequences have become alarmingly apparent. Part of that is the extent to which organizations like UNFPA have found themselves unable to perform legitimate services in the developing world because of their historic connection to population control. For it was news of sex-selective and forced abortions that helped fuel a budding anti-abortion movement in the United States. Protesters showed up at the 1984 World Population Conference in Mexico City, wielding evidence of abuses in China. The next year, President Ronald Reagan unveiled what would become known as the "global gag rule," cutting off $46 million in funds to UNFPA -- money that might have gone toward maternal and child health as well as population control. The struggle to fund reproductive health continued over the next two decades, with subsequent U.S. presidents withdrawing or reinstating the gag rule along partisan lines.
Nowadays, of course, UNFPA and Planned Parenthood are led by a new wave of feminist bureaucrats who are keen on ensuring reproductive rights, and they no longer finance global population control. Thanks to a thriving anti-abortion movement, Planned Parenthood can barely make contraceptives and safe abortion available to the American women who actually want them. But contentious American politics has these and other groups on the left stuck in what Joseph Chamie, former head of the U.N. Population Division, calls "the abortion bind." The United Nations issued an interagency statement condemning sex selection and outlining recommendations for action last week, and UNFPA was among the agencies that helped draft it. The organization has also funded research on sex selection and sex ratio imbalance at the local level. But its legacy in the developing world continues to haunt its leaders, to the detriment of women worldwide. Lingering anxiety over taking on issues involving abortion, activists and demographers have told me, now has UNFPA reluctant to address sex selection head-on at the international level -- a reluctance that has left the organization's enemies to twist the issue to fit their own agenda. (Anti-abortion groups and pundits have proven all too eager to to take on the issue, though they seem far more interested in driving home restrictions on abortion than they do in increasing the number of women in the world and protecting the rights of women at risk.)
Meanwhile, as American politicians argue over whether to cut Planned Parenthood's U.S. funding and the Christian right drives through bans on sex-selective abortion at the state level, the effects of three decades of sex selection elsewhere in the world are becoming alarmingly apparent. In China, India, Korea, and Taiwan, the first generation shaped by sex selection has grown up, and men are scrambling to find women, yielding the ugly sideblows of increased sex trafficking and bride buying. In a Chinese boomtown, I watched soap operas with a slight, defeated woman from the poor mountains of the west who had been brought east by a trafficker and sold into marriage. (Her favorite show: Women Don't Cry.) In the Mekong Delta, I visited an island commune where local women are hawked by their parents for a few thousand dollars to "surplus" Taiwanese men. While the purdah forecasted by John Postgate has not yet come to pass, feminists in Asia worry that as women become scarce, they will be pressured into taking on domestic roles and becoming housewives and mothers rather than scientists and entrepreneurs.
But what happens to women is only part of the story. Demographically speaking, women matter less and less. By 2013, an estimated one in 10 men in China will lack a female counterpart. By the late 2020s, that figure could jump to one in five. There are many possible scenarios for how these men will cope without women -- and not all, of course, want women -- but several of them involve rising rates of unrest. Already Columbia University economist Lena Edlund and colleagues at Chinese University of Hong Kong have found a link between a large share of males in the young adult population and an increase in crime in China. Doomsday analysts need look no further than America's history: Murder rates soared in the male-dominated Wild West.
Four decades ago, Western advocacy of sex selection yielded tragic results. But if we continue to ignore that legacy and remain paralyzed by heated U.S. abortion politics, we're compounding that mistake. Indian public health activist George, indeed, says waiting to act is no longer an option: If the world does "not see ten years ahead to where we're headed, we're lost."
Update: Since this article was posted, UNFPA has added a prominent page on sex selection to its website.