Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl (Public Affairs, $31.50, 313 pages)

A book authored by Science’s Beijing correspondent has garnered a lot of attention for pointing out that a combination of depopulation ideology, ultrasound technology, and late-term abortion has led to what Mara Hvistendahl has called “163 million missing women,” mostly in Asia where boy babies are valued over girl babies.

Hvistendahl’s journalistic credentials shine throughout her thoroughly interesting account of a demographic crisis. She traveled to nine countries and interviewed doctors, women sold by families, mothers who aborted their baby girls, men with no prospects of marriage, prostitutes, and demographers, to illustrate the problems that arise when a disproportionate number of females are aborted.

The natural ratio of boy births compared to girl births is roughly 105:100. But when a society such as Red China has a one-child policy combined with a cultural preference for boys, or a culture such as India’s where expensive dowries turn daughters into burdensome expenses, the ability to determine whether the unborn is male or female and the availability of abortion inevitably leads to sex-selection abortions that eliminate large numbers of girls. In parts of India the ratio of boys to girls being born is 112:100 (and as high as 126:100 in some regions) and 121:100 in China (and higher in some regions, such as the city of Lianyungang where there are 163 boys for every 100 girls). The problem is replicated in other countries, too: in Azerbaijan it is 115:100 and in Armenia it’s 120:100. Ditto in some immigrant-populated areas in the West.

Hvistendahl also points to two other trends: that in many Asian countries sex ratios become more skewed for every child after the first, and that sex ratios are skewed among the wealthiest (who can afford ultrasounds and abortion). That said, the cost to determine whether a fetus is a boy or girl, and the cost of eliminating the girls, pales in comparison to the cost incurred by having a daugther; Hvistendahl notes one Indian clinic’s advertisement that said, “Better 500 rupees now than 5,000 later,” comparing the cost an abortion to the cost of a dowry.

The consequences of the new sex imbalance are horrific and described in Part Three, entitled “The Womanless World,” in which Hvistendahl paints a dystopian future for countries in which large numbers of men cannot find wives and settle down: women are kidnapped and forced into marriage, or, worse, prostitution. Asian societies in the future are likely to be less stable and more violent.

The book is not without its problems. While Unnatural Selection is one of the few books to acknowledge Henry Kissinger’s promotion of population control and abortion in National Security Study Memorandum 200, it does so only in passing and in the context of condemning not the population control agenda, but to bludgeon right-wing bogeymen. (That said, her expose of the ideology and connections of various pro-depopulation advocates and organizations is very good, including quoting the Population Council’s Sheldon Segal’s 1969 support of sex-selection abortion as a way to accelerate population control measures: fewer girls means fewer future mothers.)

More problematically, Hvistendahl is reticent to criticize either abortion – indeed, she frets about pro-lifers using sex-selection as a wedge to ban abortion – or the silence of feminists whose agenda contributes, ironically, to the wholesale slaughter of tens of millions of girls simply because they are girls. Hvistendahl acknowledges “that in union with population pressures and technology, choice has been perverted.” Her solution? Do nothing about abortion.

But as Jonathan V. Last pointed out his Wall Street Journal review “choice is choice” so “if ‘choice’ is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against ‘gendercide’.”

Killing an unborn child because she is a girl, Last notes, “is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s ‘mental health’ requires it.” Or as Mark Steyn noted on his website: “In practice, a ‘woman’s right to choose’ turns out to mean the right to choose not to have any women.”

And lastly a quibbling complaint about terminology. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out, 163 million girls and women are not missing; they are dead. Hvistendahl flinches from using the word and her inability face this harsh truth weakens an otherwise brilliant, and alarming, book.