Unnatural Selection: Mira Hvistendahl

This book depressed the hell out of me. Really. Page after page detailing just why I, as a member of the lady subset of humans, am really not wanted, and all the terrible things that people are doing to get rid of me. Mostly they are having sex selective abortions. And they are mostly having them in Asia and Eastern Europe, thanks to Western pressure and technology.

Unnatural Selection is yet another non-fiction book with an unwieldy subtitle that says it all: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. Hvistendahl spends the first third of the book, “Everyone Has Boys Now”, documenting how people are choosing boys over girls, mostly in the developing world. Right off the bat, she makes a depressing point: “Sexism might be an obvious culprit for imbalance if it weren’t so universal. Parents in nearly all cultures say they prefer boys, and yet sex selection only strikes in part of the world.” Almost all parents would rather have boys. This is so deeply unsettling for me as a non-boy. My entire life, I have delighted in the fact that I was born a girl. Seriously. Being a woman is awesome. I have experienced sexism and railed (and continue to rail) against it, particularly in the science/nerd communities that I grew up in. But being a woman has always struck me as an awesome thing to be, and whenever a woman I know is pregnant, I hope she has a girl, because girls rock. So to learn that so many women in so many countries are so opposed to having girls that 160 million girls that should have been born were not born in Asia alone.

This figure comes from the natural sex ratio that exists at birth in humans, roughly 105 boys for every 100 girls. Biologists have offered up various theories as to why this is, but whatever the reason, this is how human beings work. The sex ratio in China was at about 121 boys for every 100 girls when the book was published, after decades of creeping steadily higher. Which, you know, is not biologically possible. Which means people are killing girl babies. (It’s called “female infanticide” in the book. But “killing girl babies” sounds so much sadder and truthful.) After depressing the reader with all this in the first chapter, Hvistendahl goes on to talk to parents seeking sex-selective abortions, the doctors performing them, and the doctors against them in China, Korea and India. She also talks to demographers across Asia and Eastern Europe, where she finds a surprising number not even willing to admit to the skewed sex ratios that their own numbers show.

She then discusses just how this situation came about in the second section, “A Great Idea”. Of course, this great idea has a lot to do with Western imperialism and racism. Of course. She carefully outlines how American population policy makers worked to bring the idea of abortion as birth control to populous nations like India and China, fretting all the while that they would not be able to get the “yellow threat” under control. Yeah, really. These classist and racist ideas really took hold in India, where Indira Ghandi carried out a mass sterilization program of poor men. And wherever there’s a Western ideology to be imposed on a poorer nation, the World Bank is right there, making aid contingent on national policy changes in line with that Western ideology. So it should come as no surprise that the World Bank was particularly influential in getting India to adopt population control policies.

The final part of the book is “The Womanless World”, where we meet girls kidnapped, or sold by their families in poorer countries, to meet the growing demand for wives or sex workers in parts of the world where the men of the first seriously skewed generation are coming of age. It’s here that Hvistendahl finally backs up the claim she makes earlier in the book of a world with more men being a more violent and dangerous place for both men and the few women who populate it. She looks back to the American Wild West, the Nian rebels in China in the early nineteenth century, and the founding myth of Rome for examples of societies that skewed heavily male and the impact of that. These were not happy places. (She also makes an interesting argument for why the U.S. is currently so dangerous with a murder rate higher than Somalia.)

She outlines why standing up to sex selection has been so difficult for groups that would otherwise oppose it. Being so tied to abortion, the subject is a difficult one for pro-choice and reproductive rights groups to talk about without drawing lines in the sand about when abortion is okay, given the very anti-choice climate in the U.S. And this did get me thinking about the ethicality of sex-selective abortions. Although I find the thought of people choosing to avoid girls very distressing, I am very much pro-choice. But in the end, I come down on the side of Mark Hughes, the man who invented embryo screening for disease, an invention which is now widely used to select for sex: “Your gender is not a disease, last time I checked.” I think it comes down to you have the right to choose whether or not to become a parent; you don’t have the right to choose what kind of child you get. And of course, the slippery slope argument comes into play. If you can select for something as important as sex, why not IQ? Why not height? And then we get into designer baby town and walk straight into classism city, where rich people get to make better babies that can get richer, while poor people are stuck with whatever their genes can do on their own.

Hvistendahl is a careful writer, meticulous with her research; over thirty pages of endnotes detail every conversation, book, source that she referred to in writing the book. But all the attention to detail does not detract from the writing itself. The flow is smooth and highly readable. I couldn’t stop reading it actually. And while I love to read non-fiction, that compulsion to keep reading is something I usually only feel while reading fiction. I’m sure part of it was the desire to know if there was any good news, anyone in the world who actually liked girls and wanted to have them. But when you find out that there are, it ends up being just as depressing as all the people who want to kill girls. Sigh. We are screwed.

A mostly not related comment: She uses the word “translator” in her acknowledgements when she clearly means interpreter. As a translator and sometimes interpreter, I really hate this. People, they are two different things. That’s why we have two different words. When I tell people that I am a translator, their reaction should not be, “You must get to meet so many people!” It should be “Why would you want to sit alone in front of a computer screen all day?”


  1. Wow. Just wow. I should read this. Having been born in an East Asian family, I know what it feels like to be ‘second class’. My Dad is the embodiment of patriarchy. Thanks goodness my Mom kicked him out of the house. And yes, I agree with you, being a girl is awesome. It would’ve been better if misogyny is not that rampant.

    Anyway, just out of curiosity, how do you choose the books that you want to read? Your selections seem to be very diverse.

    Good post, as always!

    1. You definitely should read this. Just be prepared for some sad statements about the world. And you’re right, it would be better to be a girl if misogyny was not so rampant. Or better, if it did not exist at all! (I know, I know, I am living in a dream world.)

      I don’t really have any method of choosing books. I just pick up things that seem interesting, and then they sit on my shelf until I find that I’m in the mood to read that particular book. I’m basically addicted to the printed word.

      And thanks for the kind words!

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