THE UNFETTERED "right to choose" is a progressive value, we are instructed by the abortion lobby - one indispensable to the empowerment of women. But a new study in PNAS (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) prompts an awkward question: How exactly are American women empowered when abortion is deployed to prevent the existence of American girls?
Population experts have documented for years the use of abortion for sex selection in regions of the world where sons are more highly prized than daughters.
The problem is particularly acute in Asia, and especially in China and India, the world's two largest countries.
The natural sex ratio at birth is slightly male-biased at roughly 1.05-to-1, meaning that about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. But in China the current ratio at birth is about 120 boys per 100 girls - and in more prosperous parts of the country, such as Guangdong and Hainan, the imbalance has reached an even more lopsided 135-to-100.
In India, census data from 2001 show that among children younger than 6, there are just 927 girls per 1,000 boys. There too, the greater the prosperity, the greater the discrepancy: In the high-income state of Punjab, notes Joseph D'Agostino of the Population Research Institute, there are only 793 girls for every 1,000 boys. He cites a report by UNICEF, which calculates that "7,000 fewer girls are now born in India each day than nature would dictate, and 10 million have been killed during pregnancy or just after in the past 20 years."
There is nothing new about the high cultural premium placed on sons in developing countries. What is relatively new is easy access to cheap ultrasound scans for determining the sex of an unborn child, and the availability of inexpensive abortions for parents who don't want a baby of the "wrong" sex.
Consider Vietnam, where a decade ago the sex ratio of newborns was a normal 1.04-to-1. Today, with the rise of ultrasound and abortion clinics, the number of newborn males has surged ahead of females.
"Vietnamese women who find they are carrying an unwanted female baby often head immediately to an abortion clinic," the Straits Times of Singapore reported last fall. "A walk-in abortion at a state hospital can be performed for $10, and at private clinics for about $20."
Most Americans rightly regard sex-selective abortions as odious; in a 2006 Zogby poll, an overwhelming 86 percent of Americans agreed that such abortions should be illegal. But they're not illegal - and as economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund indicate in the latest issue of PNAS, they are now occurring in the United States, too.
Almond and Edlund examined the ratio of boys to girls among US children born to Chinese, Korean, and Indian parents. For the first children of these Asian-American families, the sex ratio was the normal 1.05-to-1. But when the first baby is a girl, the odds of the second being a boy rose to 1.17-to-1. After two sisters, the likelihood of the third being a son leaped to 1.51-to-1. This is clear "evidence of sex selection, most likely at the prenatal stage," the authors write. Prenatal sex tests for pregnant women are now available earlier, more cheaply, and more conveniently than ever, "raising the prospect of sex selection becoming more widely practiced in the near future."
The destruction of unwanted daughters is appalling everywhere, but at least in places like India and China parents may have rational reasons for preferring a son. In China, for example, daughters routinely join their husbands' families and parents rely on sons to take care of them as they age. Facing intense government pressure to have no more than one or two children, many parents resort to sex-selective abortion.
But nothing can excuse such abortions in the United States - nothing except the theology of "choice," which elevates the right to an abortion above all other considerations. You don't have to be a feminist to know that being a girl is not a birth defect, or to be horrified by a practice that lethally reinforces the most benighted forms of sexual discrimination. For what kind of feminist would it be who could contemplate the use of abortion to eliminate ever-greater numbers of girls, and not cry out in horror?
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.