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NRL News
Page 23
April 2009
Volume 36
Issue 5

Severe Gender Imbalance in China Due to
Sex-Selection Abortion, Study Concludes

By Randall K. O'Bannon, Ph.D.

The normal ratio of the sexes at birth is between 103 and 107 males for every 100 females. In China, a new study tells us that the ratio at birth in 2005 was 120 males for every 100 females. In that year, the study reports, males under the age of 20 exceeded the number of females by more than 32 million.

The reason? According to “China’s excess males, sex selective abortion, and one child policy: analysis of data from 2005 national intercensus survey,” the imbalance “is attributed almost entirely to couples’ decisions to abort female fetuses.” Quite directly, the authors write, “Sex-selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males,” which has grown in number steadily since 1986 “as ultrasound tests and abortion became more available.”

The authors, two Chinese university professors and a London health researcher, analyzed data on nearly five million people age 20 and younger from all of China’s provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities, and all 2,861 of its counties. Data from rural, town, and urban areas were included. The study appeared in the April 9, 2009, online edition of the British Medical Journal.

The enormous gender imbalance is a product of several factors. According to the authors, especially in the area of South and East Asia, there is a traditional preference for sons. In the past, this sometimes manifested itself in female infanticide or abandonment. With the advent of ultrasonagraphic technology, and the widespread availability of abortion, the elimination of many of the females comes before birth.

Another factor, the outcome of communist social planning, is China’s “one child policy,” which tries to control population growth by limiting couples to one child, which includes forced abortion. The authors say that implementation of that policy varies from province to province, with measurable consequences.

Those with the strictest policy, the authors say, allow a limited number of couples to have a second child if the first is a girl. Other slightly more lenient provinces allow anyone to have a second child if the first is a girl or the parents experience “hardship” (the meaning is determined by local officials). In some of the remoter provinces, couples are allowed to have a second child or, in rare instances, a third, irrespective of sex.

The authors found staggering imbalances in areas that allowed a second birth when the first child was a girl. The couple would know that this is the last baby they would be allowed to have. Given the ready availability of ultrasound and the cultural preference for boys, there were far more boys in these second births than girls.

Several provinces in this category had ratios of higher than 160 males for every 100 females for second births, with two even reaching 190 or higher, for births recorded between November 2004 and October 2005.

On the extremely rare occasion of a third birth (less than 5%), the ratios are extremely lopsided in nearly every province, whatever the policy. Overall, in the analysis of births from November 2004 to October 2005, there were 157 males born for every 100 females in China among the third born. In Beijing and three other provinces, the ratio for third births was over 200 males for every 100 females. (Beijing had the highest ratio, at 275.)

Generally, the authors claim, the more rural the area, the higher the gender imbalance. In 2005 for children between the ages of one and four, the ratio of males to females in rural areas was 126 to 100. Among the same age group in urban areas (those with 100,000 or more non-agricultural population), the ratio was 116 to 100.

By examining the ratios not only at birth but among the population as a whole under the age of 20, the authors were able to argue more forcefully that the gender balance was real. It was not merely the product of girls being hidden from the authorities, since their presence would become known when they show up for school or for immunizations.

China has an official policy banning sex-selection abortion, but this is hard to enforce when ultrasound and abortion are readily available and there is the pressure of China’s one-child policy. The authors write, “In the era of the one child policy the fact that the problem of excess males in China seems to outstrip that of all other countries is perhaps no surprise.”

Aware of the imbalance, the Chinese government launched a “care for girls” campaign in 2000, changing laws related to inheritance and pushing an educational program promoting gender equality, claiming evidence of some success in targeted localities. However, the authors note that “nothing can be done to prevent this imminent generation of excess men.”

As of this writing, there is nothing on the latest study on the web sites of NOW, NARAL Pro-Choice America, or Planned Parenthood. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the dilemma it poses for these groups.