Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

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by Mara Hvistendahl

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A shocking exposé of the causes of Asia's massive gender imbalance and its consequences across the globeSee more details below


A shocking exposé of the causes of Asia's massive gender imbalance and its consequences across the globe

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

This extraordinary debut from Mara Hvistendahl, award-winning writer and correspondent for Science magazine, reveals the fascinating yet terrifying state of sex ratio imbalance. Drawing on research and her experience living in China, where the one-child policy still holds sway, Hvistendahl nimbly shifts between quantitative data and ethnographic reports. As brides or prostitutes, women in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East are still treated as a commodity. With an estimated 160 million females missing from the Asian population, there is the added crisis of "surplus men," thus causing "rampant demographic masculinization," and carrying with it the possibility of increased social instability and violence. By analyzing sociological trends between affluence and birth, especially amidst the current boom of China and India, and providing sound historical overviews of how cultural traditions and governmental policies have evolved, Hvistendahl reveals the true extent of entrenched ideologies and moreover, the lack of intervention from oblivious officials. Her exposé on prenatal sex selection brims with bold judgments that shed light on a culturally sensitive issue. A definitive text on demographic change and its startling consequences that is both thorough and thoroughly engaging.
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Kirkus Reviews

A hard-hitting, eye-opening study that not only paints a dire future of a world without girls but traces the West's role in propagating sex selection.

In her debut, Beijing-based Science correspondent Hvistendahl delves deeply into the causes of the vanishing of girls in Asia and Eastern Europe and looks beyond the traditional explanation of infanticide and abandonment. In fact, girls are simply not being born—demographers calculate that 163 million potential girls have been eliminated in Asia alone through ultrasound and abortion, the technological advancements of the West. A natural sex ratio at birth is 100 girls to 105 boys--nature compensates for the fact that more boys tend to die young due to dangerous behavior, wars, exhaustion, etc. Even a slight deviation from this natural balance toward boys can have enormous repercussions in a society, leaving a surplus of males unable to find mates, introducing instability, violence and the possibility of extinction. Astoundingly, the sex ratio in China is 121 boys to girls, in India 112. The skewed gender imbalance has also swept Vietnam, the Caucasus and the Balkans—all developing countries where the status of women is supposed to have improved as the countries got richer. Yet traditional beliefs—boys take care of their parents and the ancestral graves, girls need a large dowry for marriage and are a burden—are deeply ingrained in these societies, even still among Asian immigrants in America, whose sex ratio is also skewed toward boys. By the mid-1980s, the high-quality second trimester ultrasound arrived; despite laws passed proscribing its use in sex selection in China, India and elsewhere, doctors capitulated to patients' needs—and money. Western doomsayers and scientists set up the alarm by the late 1960s about world overpopulation, and naively (or sinisterly, as the author hints) endorsed sex selection even then as an effective form of birth control, setting the groundwork for future crisis.

Hvistendahl's important, even-handed exposé considers all sides of the argument and deserves careful attention and study.

Elaine Showalter
Is Hvsitendahl a whistleblower, warning us of a terrible disaster we must take action to avert — and if so, what kind of action would that be? Or is she a Cassandra, describing an unavoidable destiny for humankind that we cannot prevent? In either case, she has written a disturbing, engrossing book that we can add to the tottering shelf of problems that keep us up at night.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher

Kirkus Review, April 15, 2011

"A hard-hitting, eye-opening study that not only paints a dire future of a world without girls but traces the West’s role in propagating sex selection…. Hvistendahl’s important, even-handed exposé considers all sides of the argument and deserves careful attention and study."

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

Unnatural Selection is an important book and a fascinating read. Mara Hvistendahl is a delightful writer: witty, engaging, and acute. But the tale she tells is deeply disturbing. Asia alone is missing 160 million women and girls, a number equal  to the entire female population of the United States. According to Hvistendahl, the culprit is less deeply rooted cultural gender bias than rising wealth, elite attitudes, and Western influence and technology. Development, at least for the coming decades, will produce not only fewer children overall, but also many fewer girls. The result is a future for many parts of the world, from India to China, Azerbaijan to Albania, where brides are much more likely to be bought, women are much more likely to be trafficked, and men are much more likely to be frustrated. For the present, women who are pro-choice must confront the stark reality that the availability of ultrasound and ready abortion are sharply reducing the number of women in the world.”

Stephen J. Dubner, author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics

"Yes, it’s a rigorous exploration of the world’s ‘missing women,’ but it’s more than that too: an extraordinarily vivid look at the implications of the problem. Hvistendahl writes beautifully, with an eye for detail but also the big picture. She has a fierce intelligence but, more important, a fierce intellectual independence; she writes with a hard edge but no venom – rather, a cool and hard passion."

Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide

"A fascinating and thoroughly researched book on a most important subject. The staggering population imbalances described by Hvistendahl should be of concern to all."

Judy Norsigian, Executive Director, Our Bodies Ourselves

“A critically important story of demographic surprises and skewed sex ratios, trafficked wives and mail-order brides. Thanks to the devaluation of females and misused technologies, sex selection has reached staggering dimensions in recent decades. Hvistendahl’s call to action is the most well-documented and compelling yet.”

The Wall Street Journal, June, 18, 2011
“Ms. Hvistendahl is a first-rate reporter and has filled Unnatural Selection with gripping details…. There is so much to recommend.”
Bloomberg, June 19, 2011
“Provocative, wide-ranging…. A thoughtful, smartly researched overview of medical developments, policymaking and cultural trends that combined to upset the global sex ratio.”
The Daily Beast, Eleanor Clift, June 22, 2011

“[Hvistendahl] approaches these sensitive subjects without an ideological ax to grind, whether pro-life or pro-population control, documenting how sex selection has taken hold thanks to technology, lower birth rates, and deep-seated cultural biases that require a boy to carry on a family’s lineage.”

New York Times, Ross Douthat, June 26, 2011

Unnatural Selection reads like a great historical detective story, and it’s written with the sense of moral urgency that usually accompanies the revelation of some kind of enormous crime.”

Marcy Darnovsky “Ms. Blog”, June 7, 2011
“An important contribution, disturbing but gripping, and challenging to all of us, perhaps especially to U.S. advocates of reproductive justice. It provides both a deep understanding of the staggering dimensions and consequences of sex selection, and an urgent prod to confront it.”
The Daily Brief, June 12, 2011

“Hvistendahl has a keen sense of detail, and her book is filled with lively encounters with the doctors, academics and bachelors who, she argues, all play a part in the changing demographics worldwide. Her research only gains in importance as these imbalanced generations, where men outnumber women by as much."

Globe and Mail, July 1, 2011

“Brave, well researched and imminently controversial…. From the distant vista of the West, where we don’t really consider what it would mean to have an only son who can never find a mate, the unbalanced sex ratio in Asia may seem like relatively small news. This remarkable book goes a long way to bringing the pain and the urgency of the issue home. Mara Hvistendahl is not just entering an important conversation, she’s starting one.” the dogged self-destruction of a braggadocio crippled by the conviction of his own superiority.”

Washington Post, July 3, 2011

“Massively well-documented…. [Hvistendahl] has written a disturbing, engrossing book.”

Evening Standard (UK), July 21, 2011

“A well-researched account of how a preference for boys has made sex selective abortion commonplace in Asia and parts of Eastern Europe… Hvistendahl makes a persuasive case for the West being complicit in the spread of sex-selective abortion.”

Economist, August 6, 2011
 “Ms. Hvistendahl is convincing in telling the little-known story of how Westerners helped create the conditions under which sex selection began in Asia…. Hvistendahl’s distinctive contribution is twofold. She provides a history of the modern practice of sex-selective abortion, based on new and detailed research, and she helps readers think about its possible consequences.”

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