Sex-selective abortion: whose fault is it?


Matthew Connelly, Professor of History at Columbia University, has spent ten years studying population control.  As an expert who recently testified in a Congressional subcommittee hearing on India’s missing girls, he believes that understanding how we as a world got to this point in our history where sex-selective abortion is being practiced will help us understand the future that we face.  Here is a summery of his findings. Connelly believes that sex-selective abortion is not a third world problem created by the One Child Policy or certain cultural preferences for boys, but rather this is a problem that was brought about through the help of Americans:

But what I began to realize during my research is that these are just parts of a much bigger story, a story in which American scientists, aid officials, and activists played leading roles. Rather than a problem of benighted people who need to be “developed” and instructed in more enlightened ways, it was development professionals who first promoted sex-selective abortion as a potential solution to what they saw as the population explosion.

Population control became a priority in the 1960s, and the 1968 platform for both major political parties believed it was an important issue.  Paul Ehrlich, Stanford biologist, was commissioned to write his book, The Population Bomb.  Ehrlich suggested that the world would not be able to provide enough food too keep up with population growth, but he did offer a solution:

[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males, then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.

As Connelly explained, Ehrlich was not the only person on board with this idea:

The head of research at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Steven Polgar, also urged biologists to find a method for sex-determination. Bernard Berelson, the president of the Population Council, wrote a particularly influential article in 1969 that listed sex-determination as one of the more ethical methods of controlling population growth if it proved necessary to go “Beyond Family Planning.” As Mara Hvistendahl notes, it is not so surprising the Berelson and Ehrlich were untroubled by the ethics of sex-determination, considering some of the other methods they were considering, such as introducing sterilizing agents into the food or water supply.

Sheldon Segal, head of the biomedical division of The Population Council was sent to New Delhi, where he showed native doctors how to determine the gender of a child before it was born.  By the 1970s, amniocentesis test were being used to target unborn females.  The underwriting of these types of initiatives was done by Western men.  According to Connelly:

What is clear is that, at the height of their power and influence, the American men who provided most of the money for population control programs worldwide – they were all men – considered controlling population growth an overriding priority, and gave no consideration to the consequences of reducing the relative number of women.

In 1975, Indira Gandhi used the army and police to sterilize eight million Indian People.  In 1983, the Chinese government sterilized over twenty million people and performed fourteen million abortions.  The U.N. gave the Chinese program chief the U.N. Population Award, which came with $12,500 and a gold medal.  Gandhi was named the co-winner. Ultrasound machines made it easier to predict a child’s gender.  The Australian Agency for International Development gave China 200 ultrasound machines, without asking that they should not been used for forced abortions.  General Electric set up a plant to produce ultrasound machines in China. While countries such as China and India now condemn sex-selective abortions, this has not stopped the beliefs that the citizens hold that boys should be favored over girls.  Connelly suggests that we as a nation cannot disillusion ourselves that it is not our problem:

But it is precisely because the US took a leading role in advocating population control worldwide that we cannot pretend that we have no responsibility for the consequences. The first step in taking responsibility is simply to acknowledge this history. It was only after a long, hard struggle that family planning organizations rejected population control and rededicated themselves to the principles of reproductive rights and health. As long as these organizations refuse to come to terms with their history, they will be vulnerable to accusations that they are still trying to control people, rather than empower them.

Connelly ended his address to the Congressional subcommittee by advocating for the worldview that all people are created equal:

It is not enough merely to insist on choice. Choices can be conditioned by default or design in ways that lead to new kinds of oppression. And the defense of life can also become an idol, a symbol devoid of substance, if the effect is to drive people to breed. Reproductive freedom is a cause that can and must stand on its own, now more than ever. But it can only take flight if it is animated by a vision of social justice in which every one of us is conceived in liberty and created equal.

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