Conservatives' Seductive, Twisted Logic on the World's "Missing" Girls

About 163 million female children have gone "missing" in Asia, and the ugly fact is stirring lots of new conversation about where and why they've disappeared.

About 163 million female children have gone "missing" in Asia, and the ugly fact is stirring lots of new conversation about where and why they've disappeared.

Sex-selective abortion and female infanticide and feticide have been widely reported over the past few decades. But a new analysis of the phenomenon has emerged that has again stirred the public imagination on the topic--and prompted a rightwing effort to blame feminists.

Mara Hvistendahl's "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men" explores the social, cultural and demographic factors that cause and reflect the trend of male preference around the world, particularly in Asia. Conservatives, however, have a more selective reading of sex selection. For them, it proves that abortion kills. Just look, they say, at the backward countries where the abortion industry drives women into a Hobbesian massacre of the unborn!

The concept of abortion-induced femicide is seductive for conservative thinkers: the independence of the other sex unleashes hidden self-anihilating impulses, erases girls from existence and plunges the Third World into the dark ages. Ross Douthat in the New York Times and Jonathan Last in the Wall Street Journal each have twisted Hvistendahl's thesis into a tangle of well-worn ideological yarns. Douthat writes:

Thus far, female empowerment often seems to have led to more sex selection, not less. In many communities, [Hvistendahl] writes, "women use their increased autonomy to select for sons," because male offspring bring higher social status. In countries like India, sex selection began in "the urban, well-educated stratum of society," before spreading down the income ladder.

After offering this trope of evil female elites, he castigates the population-control dogma of "Western governments and philanthropic institutions" and trots out the eugenicist views held by the early social reformers who established Planned Parenthood.

The history of oppressive population control programs can't be denied; we're still learning about the impacts of policies that pushed compulsory sterilization on black women and coercive abortion in the United States and around the world. But gender-skewing does not stem simply from some endemic cultural impulse; elite institutions have helped make sex selection a disturbingly logical response to social obstacles.

The conservative framing erases women from the conversation altogether, spinning their bodies into a foil to vilify godless liberalism. So Douthat's ilk come off as champions of the poor and disenfranchised by opposing abortion as the bludgeon of brave-new-world amorality. Anti-abortion rhetoric slips easily behind the mask of humanitarian concern, while shoving the humanity of the poor and people of color even further to the margins.

But in India and China, draconian family planning policy was part of the broader project of reshaping the "masses" to conform to a Western definition of economic development and progress. Interrogating top-down population politics requires a second look at, not rejection of reproductive choice as a means of nurturing agency, responsibility, and the rights of women, families and communities to pursue opportunity and, yes, be fruitful and multiply on their own terms.

Yale University professor Inderpal Grewal writes:

...we can deduce that the preference for boys is not about "Indian culture" per se; rather, in the increasingly globalized economy of contemporary India, class mobility is still a man's game.

The new digital economy of India, a cornerstone of the economic engine that promises to make India a global superpower, is not paying dividends for women yet. The country's booming technology sector operates on a two-tiered system, with men advancing into the management class, while the majority of women remain relegated to lower-status support positions. ...

All too aware of this pervasive glass ceiling, families realize that daughters will face more professional obstacles, which only reinforces their desire for male offspring.

Back in the U.S.--a land of monstrous paradoxes of freedom and oppression, riven by race, gender and class lines--we find the ultimate petri dish for our hypothetical girl child. The religious right is ready to welcome her with billboards and online campaigns deploying the anti-abortion canard under the banner of anti-racism--"protecting" the helpless from clandestine ethnic cleansing. As we've reported before, there are reasonable fears of racist manipulation by the medical system. It's all the more unsettling, then, that anti-choice ideologues exploit anxieties about the eugenics legacy to steer women of color away from the reproductive rights movement. Conveniently, the idea of an empowered black woman in control of her sexual and reproductive destiny gets buried by those who wish to strip all women of that power by convincing them that their right to choose will harm them.

Whether women's worth is measured on cultural or economic lines, it's not what conservatives label "female empowerment" that skews the sex ratio. It's the fact that society in many cases give poor women extremely limited, and sometimes dangerous, options to better their circumstances. It is this imbalance of opportunity--not an imbalance of gender privilege--that has a ripple effect for the population at large, which in turn widens the gender gap both socially and economically.

To find the girls who've gone missing around the world, first look for the institutions that gently render women invisible, right before our eyes.

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