The Bat Segundo Show: Mara Hvistendahl

Mara Hvistendahl appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #398. She is most recently the author of Unnatural Selection.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering cold water solutions if he attempts to sire sons.

Author: Mara Hvistendahl

Subjects Discussed: Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address on the occasion of the UN’s 20th anniversary, the relationship between birth rate, sex selection, and development, the history of amniocentesis in India, cultural relativism, U.S. efforts to push population policy in the 1960s, forced sterilization programs, Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb, Bernard Berleson’s “Beyond Family Planning,” cheap ultrasound machines flooded into the East, fetal sex determination in India, China and South Korea, efforts to crack down on sex-selective abortion, the influence of GE ultrasound machines, where the pursuit of “market demand: creates skewered sex ratios, surplus men in China who won’t be able to find wives, the UN Population Fund using the term “prenatal sex selection” instead of “abortion,” the global gag rule, abortion clinics advertising on Chinese television, abortion perspectives in Asia, the effect of a 1990 South Korean crackdown on sex-selective abortion upon sex ratio and abortion rates, the ethical dilemma of controlling “unnatural” sex selection through “unnatural” methods, the effect on ideology and technology on sex ratios, marriage agencies in East Asia, despondent women who are dependent upon their husbands for immigration status, abuse of mail brides in Taiwan and Korea, the relationship between lonely men and violence, parallels between surplus men in China and the problems with too many males during the Wild West, prostitution, a thought experiment about transferring surplus Chinese men into surplus single women New York (and vice versa) to solve sex ratio problems, why Paul Erlich can’t remember the details of his over-the-top ideology decades later, whether Paul Erlich is a crackpot, contraceptive mists over other nations, and the effects of right-wing agitation on global population policies.


Correspondent: In 1965, as you point out in the book, Lyndon Johnson delivers a speech on the occasion of the United Nations’s 20th anniversary. And he says before this crowd in San Francisco, “Less than five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” Now development, as you point out, typically accompanies a plummeting birth rate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this issue of sex selection, which is in your book, goes away. You point to a Christophe Guilmoto study believing that the Middle East will be the next region to develop this gender imbalance. I have to ask. Are there any circumstances in which this plummeting birth rate or an increased development doesn’t create this gender imbalance? Is this something that we should look at nation by nation? Does one have to consider an individual nation’s cultural values? Let’s open up the ball of wax here.

Hvistendahl: Yeah. Sex selection imbalance is not something that’s automatically going to crop up in a country just because it’s developing. What we have seen in the countries where we have sex selection today, they are developing very rapidly. And the birth rate’s fallen dramatically. A woman who maybe had six kids in Korea in the 1960s. The average woman over her lifetime had six children. And today it’s just a little over one child per woman. There are other ingredients. Abortion needs to be legal and readily available. Because the method that many women use now is sex-selective abortion. New technology comes in. Ultrasound. But it doesn’t mean that every country that reaches a certain level of development will have this gender imbalance.

Correspondent: Well, we’ve got the predictions in the Middle East. What about other countries along these lines? I mean, how much of a correlation is there between birth rate, development, and sex selection?

Hvistendahl: For me, that’s kind of a triangle of trends. But obviously you need to have gender discrimination. Women need to want boys. Their husbands need to want boys. But gender discrimination alone doesn’t explain where sex selection occurs. In fact, in most countries around the world, women want at least one son. Either they tell researchers that. They say we want one son. Or demographers can look at where couples stop. This is actually called a stopping rule. So what was the sex of the last child? And it turns out, in most countries, women tend to stop when they have a son. That was even true of the U.S., until recently. So that’s the case in much of the world. And yet we only have sex selection in this area where you have a triangle of trends.

Correspondent: Well, let’s turn to a specific country: India. You describe the early days of amniocentesis there. Government hospitals, they serve the poor and the indigent. And they begin using this test, which is initially designed to detect fetal abnormalities. And, of course, word spreads among the middle and the upper classes. “Hey! We can also use this test to also look for gender.” As you describe, what’s astonishing here is that none of the doctors considered the ethical underpinnings of such a practice. And they viewed this as a way of making the world a better place. So what ultimately accounted for this attitude in India in the 1970s? It can’t just be tradition, as the Indian activists have said, or even cultural relativism. What causes something like this to happen?

Hvistendahl: Well, I told that story by way of explaining how the population control movement in the U.S. has played a role in shaping population policies in Asia. So the medical school where these tests happen is called the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. It’s the top medical school in India, basically. And in 1975, they were the first hospital in India to use amniocentesis. So that’s where you withdraw a small amount of amniotic fluid from a pregnant woman’s abdomen. And you can test fetal cells in that fluid for sex. It was an early way of determining sex. They were the first hospital to do that. They opened the test up to poor women, as you said. And there were close to a thousand women who aborted female fetuses by the time the test was over. So that story’s pretty well known in India, especially among people who are working on this issue. What I discovered was that this logic that sex selection is a good method of population control actually originates in the U.S. So the doctors in 1970s India were espousing this. “Isn’t this great? We’re doing something to control the population.” But that idea had been around in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, how do you contend with the issue of cultural relativism when you’re dealing with tradition in India versus contraceptive traditions in the United States?

Hvistendahl: Well, the United States in the 1960s, the population control movement was really looking at how to reduce population and birth rates around the world. They were not just looking at the United States.

Correspondent: Yes.

Hvistendahl: So there were projections from the United Nations showing that people were living longer than ever before. And then the projections showed populations kind of spiraling out of control. And there was a lot of concern about this issue on both the right and the left. It was a kind of bipartisan effort. Environmentalists were very involved. Also McCarthyists, who thought that a growing population would lead to Communism. And people were casting about for solutions. So organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation — they were working very actively in developing countries to look at the ways in which you might reduce the birth rate. And one of the things that came up is that women kept having children until they had a son. Again, it’s this stopping rule. So then this idea emerged, “Well, what if we can guarantee them a son on the first try or the second try?” I mean, you have to understand that, at the time, there were all these radical solutions being tried. Forced sterilizations were happening in some parts of the world.

Correspondent: And in the United States too. Among poor people.

Hvistendahl: Yeah. We flirted with eugenics in the United States. People were talking about unveiling birth permits. What is now the one-child policy in China. So all of these strategies were on the table. And sex selection was voluntary. It was something that researchers knew what parents would choose to do on their own. They wouldn’t have to be forced. I think also that the fact that women and people of color didn’t play a very big role in the population control movement, that was a factor too. But you remember this book, The Population Bomb?

Correspondent: Yes, Paul Erlich.

Hvistendahl: Paul Erlich.

Correspondent: Who we’ll get into in just a bit.

Hvistendahl: Okay. He mentions sex selection as a good population control method. The President of the Population Council [Bernard Berelson], which is a very active group, at the time wrote an article for Science in 1969 [“Beyond Family Planning” — PDF here], saying sex selection is a great method. If we can just find a way to guarantee couples the child that they want — and he knew that was basically a boy — then we can production population growth.

The Bat Segundo Show #398: Mara Hvistendahl (Download MP3)

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