In the world of gender politics, death is the latest measure of parity.
Not only do women outlive men, but recent research shows that they're also being born more often than in the past. The allegedly stronger sex, it turns out, is really the weaker and more vulnerable -- from conception until death do us part.
Nature has always seen to it that about 105 males were born for every 100 females, but that ratio has been shifting the past three decades, possibly owing to environmental pollution as well as to stressful current events.
In both the U.S. and Japan, the male-to-female ratio dropped between 1970 and 2001 -- from 106.3 boys for every 100 girls to fewer than 105 per 100 in Japan, and from 105.5 to 104.6 in the U.S.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh say that these dips, though small, suggest that paternal exposure to environmental pollutants is taking a toll on the male reproductive system. Some studies have shown that certain pollutants may affect the viability of sperm that bear the Y chromosome, which determines male sex.
In Italy, men who were exposed to dioxin during an industrial explosion fathered significantly fewer boys than girls. Another study of workers at a Russian herbicide plant found that only 38 percent of children born to the male workers were boys, while female workers produced the normal male-to-female ratio.
If the environment doesn't reduce the male population, current events may. Last year, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley reported that women stressed out during pregnancy tend to produce fewer males. In the former East Germany, for instance, male birth rates declined following the country's 1991 economic collapse.
One possible explanation is that when women are stressed, their bodies produce high levels of stress hormones -- glucocorticoids -- that cause problems for male fetuses. Researchers concluded that women's bodies spontaneously abort weak male fetuses and embryos because weak sons aren't likely to produce as many offspring as will strong sons -- or even weak daughters.If nature is unpredictable, at least she is consistently ruthless.
Not only do the strongest survive, but only the strongest males make it to the birth canal.
Meanwhile, other studies indicate that male testosterone levels and sperm counts are decreasing, while the rate of testicular cancer, which affects mostly young men, is increasing.
With lower levels of male hormones, lower sperm counts and fewer male babies, things are not looking good for males. Nor for females who love their sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles and assorted others of the hirsute persuasion.
Men's health is a relatively recent concern -- and a political hot potato -- as research monies the past 20 years or so have been directed increasingly toward women's health. Thanks in large part to the grass-roots Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, breast cancer awareness has turned the world pink.
In a display of public virtue, corporate America has pinkified everything from cameras and cars to food packaging, so that buying a toaster or a cup of yogurt has become a political decision. Do you buy stainless in an act of gender neutrality -- or pink to show solidarity with women suffering breast cancer?
In fact, as Cathy Young reported in Reason magazine, more than 400 clinical trials were conducted on breast cancer between 1966 and 1986, compared to just 121 on prostate cancer. But who's counting?
Men have begun fighting back against what they now perceive to be bias toward women's health, lobbying the past few years for a federal Office of Men's Health. Ultimately, of course, no one wins the war of healthier-than-thou, while another layer of bureaucratic one-upmanship is just that.
A better means for improving men's health -- and saving the males -- is for women to recognize that males are in trouble and that a world without men, while perhaps calmer, would be far less interesting and fun.
As we've recently witnessed, when women want something, they usually get it.
Perhaps it's time for a blue toaster.