For nearly two decades, anti-abortion activists have been at work in a disingenuous game, using the stark reduction of women in the developing world as an argument for taking away hard-earned rights. Conservative theorists have written openly about how sex-selective abortion is merely a convenient wedge issue in the drive to ban all abortions, both in the United States and abroad. And now, conservative commentators like the New York Times' Ross Douthat, the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan V. Last, and the editors of the New York Sun have claimed that my book, Unnatural Selection, strengthens their case.
This does not surprise me. One of the themes that cropped up again and again in my reporting was the extent to which American abortion politics on both sides of the question has stalled action on issues of major global importance. But it is deeply unfortunate. The American obsession with abortion does not just hinder work on maternal and child health or access to safe birth control abroad -- two areas that have suffered because of domestic campaigns by anti-abortion activists. It's also distracting U.S. policymakers from what should be the real conversation in a country that leads the world in human reproductive technology: whether to allow parents to use a growing range of methods to select for characteristics like sex (or diseases that come on late in life and, perhaps one day, IQ) in their children. Because sex selection is not just a developing-world problem -- it's an American problem, too.
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Western influence and technology have caused their fair share of damage abroad, but often the damage is not explicitly foreseen, so that decades later it is still possible for trouble's architects to look back and say, "We just didn't know." But with fetal sex determination and sex selection, a good number of people knew. The 1960s population control enthusiasts who supported pushing along research into sex selection methods as a way to reduce the global birth rate knew those methods would occasion a reduction in the proportion of girls born, even if they did not envision the scale of that reduction -- the disappearance of 160 million females, by 2005, from Asia's population. As I delved into this history for my book, the tragedy for me became this cold foresight: the fact that some prominent activists and scientists actually anticipated the side effects of widespread sex selection -- that a massively imbalanced sex ratio at birth would result in rising instability, risks for those women who are born, and a social environment bordering on what one early proponent described as a "giant boy's public school or a huge male prison" -- and yet dismissed those effects as necessary ills in the quest to solve humanity's problems through technology. They knew, and still they plowed ahead.