Sex-selective abortion is the targeted abortion of a fetus based upon its sex. This is done after a determination is made (usually by ultrasound but also rarely by amniocentesis or another procedure) that the fetus is of an undesired sex. Sex selective infanticide is the practice of selective infanticide against infants of an undesired sex. One common method is child abandonment.
These practices are especially common in some places where cultural norms value male children over female children. Societies that practice sex selection in favor of males (sometimes called son preference or female deselection) are quite common, especially in The People's Republic of China, Korea, Taiwan, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, New Guinea, and many other developing countries in East Asia and North Africa; sex selection in favor of females appears to be rare or non-existent, although some legends of Amazons say that they practiced male infanticide. In 2005, 90 million women were estimated to be missing in seven Asian countries alone due, apparently, to prenatal sex selective abortion. However, other reasons for the sex ratio imbalance in certain countries have been proposed (see below). The existence of the practice appears to be determined by culture, rather than by economic conditions, because such deviations in sex ratios do not exist in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Sex-selective abortion was rare before the late 20th century because of the difficulty of determining the sex of the fetus before birth, but ultrasound has made such selection easier. However, prior to this, parents would alter family sex compositions through infanticide. It is believed to be responsible for at least part of the skewed birth statistics in favor of males in mainland China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea.
Female deselection is common in China: Chinese tradition says that most parents want their first child to be born a male. Female deselection is also due to deeply rooted Confucian traditions, and Chinese parents desire sons in order to make familial propagation, security for the elderly, labor provision, and performance of ancestral rites. China calls the female deselection situation the "missing girl" problem.
Parents may wish for a male child because in many cultures only a male will carry on the family name (traditionally when a bride gets married she effectively becomes a member of the groom's family), because they believe that a male is needed for work, or because they wish a male to earn an income needed to support the parents in their old age. In response to sex-selective abortions, Mainland China has made it illegal for a physician to reveal the sex of a fetus.
Research indicates that women infected with the hepatitis B virus are 1.5 times more likely to give birth to a male. The researcher, Emily Oster, says that the higher rates of hepatitis B in China could account for 75% of the "missing girls. However, new demographic research casts doubt on the hepatitis B theory. Das Gupta found that data from a huge sample of births in China show that the only women with elevated probabilities of bearing a son are those who have already borne daughters.
Studies in India have indicated three factors of female deselection in India, which are economic utility, sociocultural utility, and religious functions. The factor as to economic utility is that studies indicate that sons are more likely than daughters to provide family farm labor or provide in or for a family business, earn wages, and give old-age support for parents. Upon marriage, a son makes a daughter-in-law an addition and asset to the family providing additional assistance in household work and brings an economic reward through dowry payments, while daughters get married off and merit an economic penalty through dowry charges. The sociocultural utility factor of female deselection is that, as in China, in India's patrilineal and patriarchal system of families is that having at least one son is mandatory in order to continue the familial line, and many sons constitute additional status to families. The final factor of female deselection is the religious functions that only sons are allowed to provide, based on Hindu tradition, which mandate that sons are mandatory in order to kindle the funeral pyre of their late parents and to assist in the soul salvation.
In some countries, including India, it is currently illegal to determine the sex of a child during pregnancy using ultra-sound scans. Laboratories are prohibited to reveal the fetus's sex during such scans. While most established labs comply with the law, determined persons can find a cheaper lab that would tell them. Like the Chinese, the Indians also use the postnatal alternative, which is sex-selective infanticide. Some turn to people called dais, traditional midwives, historically female, who offer female deselection, letting the baby boys live but killing the newborn girls by giving them a sharp jerk, that is, turning them upside-down and snapping their spinal cords, and then declaring them stillborn.
The British medical journal The Lancet reported in early 2006 that there may have been close to 10 million female fetuses aborted in India over the past 20 years. This is extrapolated partly on the basis of reduction of female-to-male sex ratio from 945 per 1000 in 1991 to 927 per 1000 in 2001. The female-to-male sex ratio is even lower in cases where a couple has had a previous daughter, but no sons, dropping to 759 to 1000 for the second child if the first was a daughter, and 719 to 1000 for a third child if the first two were both daughters. However, the Indian Medical Association disputed the findings, saying gender selection had dropped since a court ruling outlawed the practice in 2001. However, some say that the laws have not been effectively upheld, and successful prosecutions remain non-existent. The study also reported that sex selective abortion is more common among the wealthy and among educated women than among the poor and the uneducated. Part of this may be due to their being able to afford the associated expense. In addition, it is what would be expected by evolutionary theory, as a poor male is much less likely to reproduce than a poor female, while the reverse is true for wealthier people, as they have a high probability of attracting multiple females. This can still pose a problem for those wealthier Indians who insist upon having a mate from within their own caste and must sometimes travel hundreds of miles to find a suitable partner.
Sex-selective abortion has become an issue in Southern and Eastern Asian countries, where sex-selective abortions have caused an increase in the imbalances between sex ratios of various Asian countries. Studies have estimated that sex-selective abortions have increased the ratio of males to females from the natural average of 105-106 males per 100 females to 113 males per 100 females in both South Korea and China, 110 males per 100 females in Taiwan, and 107 males per 100 females among Chinese populations living in Singapore and parts of Malaysia. However, a similar trend does not exist in North Korea, possibly due to limited access to prenatal sex-testing technologies.
During the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, policy objectives intended to eliminate sex-selective abortion and infanticide, along with discrimination against female children, were stated in Article 4.15 of the Programme of Action: "...to eliminate all forms of discrimination against the girl child and the root causes of son preference, which results in harmful and unethical practices regarding female infanticide and prenatal sex selection".
Sex-selective abortion has been seen as worsening the sex ratio in India, and thus affecting gender issues related to sex compositions of Indian households. According to the 2001 census, the sex-ratio in India is 107.8 males per 100 females, up from 105.8 males per 100 females in 1991. The ratio is significantly higher in certain states such as Punjab (126.1) and Haryana (122.0).
It has been argued that by having a one-child policy, China has increased the rate of abortion of female fetuses, thereby accelerating a demographic decline. As Chinese families are allowed only one child, and would often prefer at least one son, there are fewer daughters, thus preventing the formation of a greater number of families in the next generation.
Since 2005, test kits such as the Baby Gender Mentor have become available over the internet. These tests have been criticized for making it easier to perform a sex-selective abortion earlier in a pregnancy. Concerns have also been raised about their accuracy.