The reality has been known for years now, though the Western media have generally resisted any direct coverage of the horror. That changed this week when The Economist published its stunning cover story -- "Gendercide -- What Happened to 100 Million Baby Girls?"
In many nations of the world, there is an all-out war on baby girls. In 1990, economist Amartya Sen estimated that 100 million baby girls were missing -- sacrificed by parents who desired a son. Two decades later, multiple millions of missing baby girls must be added to that total, victims of abortion, infanticide, or fatal neglect.
The murder of girls is especially common in China and northern India, where a preference for sons produces a situation that is nothing less than critical for baby girls. In these regions, there are 120 baby boys born for every 100 baby girls. As The Economist explains, "Nature dictates that slightly more males are born than females to offset boys' greater susceptibility to infant disease. But nothing on this scale."
In its lead editorial, the magazine gets right to the essential point: "It is no exaggeration to call this gendercide. Women are missing in their millions--aborted, killed, neglected to death."
In its detailed and extensive investigative report, the magazine opens its article with chilling force. A baby girl is born in China's Shandong province. Chinese writer Xinran Xue, present for the birth, then hears a man's voice respond to the sight of the newborn baby girl. "Useless thing," he cried in disappointment. The witness then heard a plop in the slops pail. "To my absolute horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slops pail!" When she tried to intervene she was restrained by police. An older woman simply explained to her, "Doing a baby girl is not a big thing around here."
The number of dead and missing baby girls is astounding. In some Chinese provinces, there are more than 130 baby boys for every 100 baby girls. The culture places a premium value on sons, and girls are considered an economic drain. A Hindu saying conveys this prejudice: "Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden."
Midwives even charge more for the birth of a baby boy. But the preference for a boy rises with both economic power and the number of children born to a couple. The imbalance of boys to girls is no accident -- it reflects a prejudice that runs throughout the societies where the abortion and killing of baby girls is considered both understandable and routine.
Add to this the widespread availability of ultrasound imaging services. Even though the governments of China and India have officially declared sex-selection abortions to be illegal, they persist by the millions. (And, interestingly, the magazine notes that Sweden actually legalized sex-selection abortions in 2009.)
This sentence from the investigative report is particularly horrifying: "In one hospital in Punjab, in northern India, the only girls born after a round of ultrasound scans had been mistakenly identified as boys, or else had a male twin."
In other words, even as the spread of ultrasound technology has greatly aided the pro-life movement by making the humanity of the unborn baby visible and undeniable, among those determined to give birth only to baby boys, in millions of cases the same technology has meant a death warrant for a baby girl in the womb.
There are multiple factors that lead to the preference for boys over girls. In China, the government's draconian "one child only" policy has led to both forced abortions and an effective death sentence for baby girls when a couple is determined that, if their children are to be so drastically limited, they will insist on having a son. As the magazine explains, "For millions of couples, the answer is: abort the daughter, try for a son."
In fact the destruction of baby girls is a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons; a modern desire for smaller families; and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of a fetus. In societies where four or six children were common, a boy would almost certainly come along eventually; son preference did not need to exist at the expense of daughters. But now couples want two children—or, as in China, are allowed only one—they will sacrifice unborn daughters to their pursuit of a son. That is why sex ratios are most distorted in the modern, open parts of China and India. It is also why ratios are more skewed after the first child: parents may accept a daughter first time round but will do anything to ensure their next—and probably last—child is a boy. The boy-girl ratio is above 200 for a third child in some places.
The social consequences of this imbalance are vast and uncorrectable. China and India now face the reality of millions of young men and boys who have absolutely no hope of a wife and family. In China, these young men are called guanggun or "broken branches." Just consider this -- the 30 to 40 million "broken branches" in China are about equal in number to the total number of all boys and young men in the United States.
These young men represent a looming disaster on the societal level. Young males commit the greatest number of criminal acts and acts of violence. Marriage has been the great taming institution for the social development of young males. Without prospect for marriage and a normal sex and family life, these multiple millions of unmarried young men are becoming a significant social challenge in China and India. Some observers even argue that this may lead to an increased militarism in the region.
Of course, the greatest disaster is personal for the young men and boys who face the future as "broken branches." The parents who insist on having boys are dooming their own sons to lives of brokenness, frustration, and grief.
And the future looks even more ominous for baby girls. Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute points to "the fatal collision between overweening son preference, the use of rapidly spreading prenatal sex-determination technology and declining fertility." As the magazine adds, "Over the next generation, many of the problems associated with sex selection will get worse. The social consequences will become more evident because the boys born in large numbers over the past decade will reach maturity then. Meanwhile, the practice of sex selection itself may spread because fertility rates are continuing to fall and ultrasound scanners reach throughout the developing world."
While imbalances such as now found in China and India are unknown in the West, the practice of sex-selection abortion is found here as well. Indeed, there is no current law against the practice in the United States, where abortion is legal for any reason, at least in earlier stages of pregnancy. In reality, sex selection abortions happen here, too. After all, proponents of abortion in the United States infamously insist on a woman's unrestricted right to an abortion "for any reason, or for no reason."
The Economist is right to call this tragedy gendercide -- the targeting of baby girls for death and destruction simply because of their gender. The magazine deserves appreciation for its no-holds-barred report on this tragedy, and for forcing the issue to be faced. Furthermore, The Economist ends its editorial with the right message, "The world needs to do more to prevent a gendercide that will have the sky crashing down."
Will reports like this awaken the conscience of the world to the unspeakable crime and global tragedy of gendercide? If not, what will it take? The blood of millions of murdered and missing baby girls cries out to the world's conscience. Will we hear?
"Gendercide," [editorial] The Economist, March 6, 2010.
"Gendercide -- The Worldwide War on Baby Girls," The Economist, March 6, 2010. The extensive investigative report is available in the magazine's print editions but is available online only to subscribers.