Prenatal Sex-Selection Comes To America

Today's Times examines the news that among Chinese-American, Indian-American, and Korean-American families, significantly more boys are being born than girls.

As mentioned last week, a study has shown that while the normal ratio of boys to girls born in the US is 1.05 to 1, the ratio among Chinese-American, Indian-American, and Korean-American births increases to 1.17 to 1 if the first child is a girl, and a full 1.5 to 1 if the family already has two girls. This means some families are using some sort of sex selection — either IVF, sperm sorting, or abortion, to guarantee a boy if they are already parents to girls.

Joyce Moy, executive director of the Asian American/Asian Research Institute of the City University of New York, explains the cultural preference for boys: "Inheritance in the old country is carried through the male line. Families depend on the male child for support." Angie and Rick, a Chinese-American couple interviewed by the Times, offer a firsthand perspective. After they had their daughter and Angie became pregnant with another girl, they considered abortion. Her next pregnancy resulted in a son, but she says, "If the third one was going to be a girl, then I would say probably I would have terminated." Another Chinese-American mom gave the Times her take on cultural pressures:

I have two daughters and am married to an only child. Early on, after the two girls were born and another two years went by and there was not a third, I found myself in the living room with four or five older relatives in a discussion of ‘Wouldn't it be lovely for you to have a boy?' It's extremely uncomfortable.

One gynecologist says she tries to discourage sex-selection, but another doctor, Jeffrey Steinberg, is more tolerant. Steinberg's clinic doesn't offer abortions, but does perform other sex-selective procedures. He says,

The patients come in and they all think they owe me an excuse, but the bottom line is it's cultural. [...] Culturally, there are a lot of strange things that go on in the world. Whether we agree with it, it's not harming anyone.

Obviously, this is the question. Condemning a practice that takes place mainly within immigrant communities always carries the danger of engaging in racism. Steinberg's comment that "culturally, there are a lot of strange things," while not actually racist, seems to reduce sex-selection from a practice with deeply ingrained economic and social roots to some kind of kooky custom. There's a danger, too, in thinking that "those people" are the only ones "backward" enough to consider sex-selection — in fact, another doctor told the Times that most Americans seeking the practice want girls, which could create its own whole set of problems. And of course sex-selection is far from the only form of sexism in the world — plenty of other forms are routinely practiced by white, non-immigrant Americans.

Still, sex-selection is a form of sexism, and one that needs to be addressed wherever it occurs. It's tempting to ask doctors and women's health groups to counsel against the practice, but efforts to forcibly change cultural norms from the outside are rarely successful. And it's hard to imagine a law against sex-selective abortion that wouldn't infringe on a woman's right to choose in other ways — after all, it's hard to prove that a woman is terminating her pregnancy because she's carrying a girl. Rather, as has been said before, the answer may lie in improving the lives of women and girls. Sam Roberts of the Times says, "some of the historic underlying reasons for the preference [for boys] are less relevant here than in China, Korea and India." But some, like the fact that men make more money and enjoy more opportunities and fewer strictures, are very relevant here — and these are things we can and should change.

U.S. Births Hint at Bias for Boys in Some Asians [New York Times]

Earlier: Will A New Prenatal Gender Test Lead To Sex-Selective Abortion?