The Unexpected Beneficiaries of Sex-Selective Abortion
The increasingly prevalent practice of sex-selective abortion in several Asian countries -- the product of modern medical techniques meeting ancient gender prejudices -- is a rare issue that has managed to shock the consciences of Western religious conservatives and feminists. Its effects have been dramatic: According to India's 2011 census, there were only 914 girls age 6 or younger for every 1,000 boys; in China, there were 118 males for every 100 females in 2010.
While most attention has focused on the millions of "missing women," as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously called them, the effects of sex-selective abortion, particularly on the girls who are born, turns out not to be quite so simple. A 2011 study by economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Tel Aviv University found that areas of India where prenatal sex selection was more prevalent also saw lower rates of malnutrition among girls, particularly in rural areas.
The reason: When no prenatal selection is taking place, families tend to continue having children until they have a boy. Due to ultrasound technology and abortion, families may have fewer girls, but those who are born are better fed.
This finding isn't likely to convince anyone of the merits of sex-selective abortion. But it is nearly a truism in international development that greater female empowerment correlates with smaller family sizes. New census data also suggest that Indian women are enjoying greater literacy, better health care, and more workplace participation, which will hopefully reduce birth rates further in a way less closely tied to ugly prejudice.
Iran's Sex-Change Solution
In 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously proclaimed to an audience at Columbia University that "in Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country." This is certainly not true, though the Iranian government does its best to make it so by meting out harsh punishments -- homosexuality is a crime and can be punishable by death -- and through its surprising policy of tolerating what is known as "sex-reassignment" surgery.
Sex-change operations have been legal in Iran for more than two decades, ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa authorizing them for "diagnosed transsexuals." As of 2008, Iran carried out the second-highest number of sex-change operations of any country, after Thailand. Many procedures are undergone by young gay men who fear imprisonment or death if they persist in seeking same-sex relationships.
When it comes to homosexuality, "Islam has a cure for people suffering from this problem," Hojatol Islam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, the cleric responsible for sex reassignment, told the BBC. He added that while homosexuals are doing something unnatural in violation of Islam, a sex change is no more sinful than "changing wheat to flour to bread."
Paying for (Safer) Sex
What's the best way to stop the spread of HIV? Two recent studies conducted in Malawi -- which has an 11 percent HIV prevalence rate in adults, one of the world's highest -- suggest that money speaks louder than words.
In one study, participants were given a small sum of money to learn their HIV status. Those who received the money were nearly twice as likely to get tested as those who did not. This makes a significant difference because sexually active, HIV-positive people who know their status are three times more likely to purchase condoms and thus prevent the further spread of the disease.
In another study, young women were randomly selected to receive monthly payments between $1 and $5. Those who received the money were half as likely to contract HIV as those who did not. The reasons were simple: The young women receiving the money were far more likely to go to school and avoid sex with older partners. The results suggest that this strategy may be even more effective than paying for sex education programs.
Paying people to engage in more responsible behavior may seem like dubious public policy. But consider the devastating toll AIDS has taken, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Unsafe sex, it turns out, may be a problem you actually can throw money at.