If you think that scarcity makes women more valuable, you are right -- but that does not mean females benefit. As "surplus men" have trouble finding mates, young girls are forced into prostitution. Others are forced into arranged marriages. On Taiwan's eBay, Hvistendahl finds three Vietnamese women for sale for $5,400.
Those women who do well economically in the new order sadly are likelier to abort daughters in favor of sons. The results are equally bleak for men. Many boys grow up knowing they are unlikely to marry and start a family. In two years, 1 in 10 Chinese men will lack a female counterpart. The Chinese have a term -- "fenqing," meaning "angry youth" -- to describe the legions of young males likely to grow old alone. They find release in places such as the Rising Sun Anger Release Bar, where "for the price of a few drinks customers can ... pummel one of the bar's hired hands." In that equation, both men are losers.
In three decades, Vietnam -- a poor country that provides brides and kidnapped prostitutes to affluent overly male nations -- will have 4.3 million surplus men.
Hvistendahl finds no shortage of villains in this story. There's China's one-child policy, which resulted in untold forced abortions. Western governments and charities threw money at family-planning efforts to stem population growth in Asia with little concern to the methods -- forced sterilizations and abortions -- employed. Then there are the willing participants -- doctors, nurses and parents -- who chose to engage in female feticide. French demographer Christophe Guilmoto recalls an Indian woman who was livid because she had aborted a boy after a doctor misdiagnosed the gender of her fetus.
I was struck at the distortion of good intentions. Family planning does promote prosperity, while overpopulation is unhealthy and destabilizing. Researchers develop technologies to help families. But in a world where technology moves faster than ethical thinking, giving would-be parents the gender they prefer is good business. So you get fertility clinics like the Los Angeles outfit that advertises, "Be certain your next child will be the gender you're hoping for."
Of course, sex-selection abortions happen in America, often among immigrant families. Hvistendahl reports that 35 percent of Asian-American pregnancies result in abortion.
San Francisco internist Sunita Puri warns, "The technology moves faster than the discussion, and we have no data on the short- and long-term consequences of what we're doing." Puri is the lead author of a recent article in Social Science & Medicine that looked at the fetal sex selection among Indian immigrants. Authors interviewed 65 immigrant women who had sex-selection abortions in America. Some feared that a daughter would engage in consensual sex and bring shame on the family. Some told of coercion -- from their husbands and mothers-in-law -- to produce a male heir. Many lied to their doctors, saying that they could not afford a baby, when their families did not want them to have another girl.
These immigrant women, the study observed, "are both the assumed beneficiaries of reproductive choice while remaining highly vulnerable to family violence and reproductive coercion."
Puri believes that clinical studies are needed to look at the potential harm that comes with the status quo. Canadian sociologist Sharada Srinivasan has another suggestion. As she told Hvistendahl, at some point feminists have to define sex selection as a human rights abuse. That would be a good start.