AS HE walked into the maternity ward of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan Hospital in Delhi on his first day at work in 1978, Puneet Bedi, a medical student, saw a cat bound past him “with a bloody blob dangling from its mouth.” “What was that thing—wet with blood, mangled, about the size of Bedi’s fist?” he remembers thinking. “Before long it struck him. Near the bed, in a tray normally reserved for disposing of used instruments, lay a fetus of five or six months, soaking in a pool of blood…He told a nurse, then a doctor, I saw a cat eat a fetus. Nobody on duty seemed concerned, however.” Mara Hvistendahl, a writer at Science magazine, is profoundly concerned, both about the fact that abortion was treated so casually, and the reason. “Why had the fetus not been disposed of more carefully? A nurse’s explanation came out cold. “Because it was a girl.”
Sex-selective abortion is one of the largest, least noticed disasters in the world. Though concentrated in China and India, it is practised in rich and poor countries and in Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim societies alike. Because of males’ greater vulnerability to childhood disease, nature ensures that 105 boys are born for every 100 girls, so the sexes will be equal at marriageable age. Yet China’s sex ratio is 120 boys per 100 girls; India’s is 109 to 100.
The usual view of why this should be stresses traditional “son preference” in South and East Asia. Families wanted a son to bear the family name, to inherit property and to carry out funerary duties. Ms Hvistendahl has little truck with this account, which fails to explain why some of the richest, most outward-looking parts of India and China have the most skewed sex ratios. According to her account, sex-selection technologies were invented in the West, adopted there as a population-control measure and exported to East Asia by Western aid donors and American military officials.
The ultrasound and other technologies that identify the sex of a fetus started out as diagnostic devices to help people with sex-linked diseases, such as haemophilia, conceive healthy children. They were greeted rapturously in America in the 1960s. “Ultrasound Device Takes Guessing Out of Pregnancy” ran one headline. “Control of Life: Audacious Experiments Promise Decades of Added Life” ran another.
But 1960s America was also a period of growing concern (hysteria, even) about population in developing countries. Policymakers, demographers and military men all thought rapid population growth was the biggest single threat to mankind and that drastic measures would be needed to rein it in. One such figure was Paul Ehrlich, whose book, “The Population Bomb”, became a bestseller in 1968. Mr Ehrlich pointed out that some Indian and Chinese parents would go on having daughter after daughter until the longed-for son arrived. If, he argued, they could be guaranteed a son right away, those preliminary daughters would not be born, and population growth would be lower. Sex selection became a tool in a wider battle to stop “overpopulation”.
But how did an obsession of Western policymakers turn into the widespread practice of destroying female fetuses in Asia? Partly, argues Ms Hvistendahl, through aid. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations gave over $3m to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in the 1960s, helping it to pioneer India’s first amniocentesis tests, initially for genetic abnormalities and later for identifying fetal sex. India at that time was the World Bank’s biggest client, and the bank made loans for health projects conditional on population control.A review of the book Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl in The Economist. Here