Abortion and Crime: The Flip Side

If Roe v. Wade contributed to the U.S. crime drop of the 1990’s, could China’s one-child policy be having the opposite effect today?

When the Chinese government instituted the policy in 1979, it touched off a wave of sex-selective abortions as pregnant couples decided that if they could have only one child they would benefit most from having a boy. That helped leave modern China with the largest gender imbalance in the world. Today, there are 37 million more men than women in China, and many of the boys are growing up unable to find a job or start a family.

So what are these “surplus” boys doing to fill their time?

In The New Republic, Mara Hvistendahl reports that as the first generation of one-child boys have reached adolescence, the youth crime rate in China has more than doubled, as idle and frustrated boys turn to crime “without specific motives, often without forethought.”

We’ve looked at the effect of unwantedness on children. But what happens when unwantedness hits a generation of men as they get older?

P.S.: Mara Hvistendahl is a former research assistant of Dubner’s who, a few years ago, took the great leap of moving to China because she thought it would be a great place to be a journalist. Go Mara!

M Todd

When you play God, God only knows what you get. China wanted to control the outcome of their birth selection, now they have a unnatural balance.

Throughout the history of mankind, nature, or God has controlled the balance between men and women born. Now that man has the option to disrupt that balance we waste no time screwing it up.

I see a certain amount of irony that abortion so championed by the woman's movement in the 70s is not the cause of the elimination of women worldwide.


When there is a shortage of women, women's rights do not INCREASE, they decrease. Men become even more controlling as they attempt to keep their daughters from marrying who they wish, because when there is a woman shortage a father can make sure his daughter goes to the highest bidder.

Once married, women are very much under the thumb of their husbands, because he knows she has a lot of options and he has a lot of threats/competition.

Women are seen not as humans, but commodities and men tend to participate in more "resource guarding" behavior. More beatings to keep the women in line, more rape, more control over her daily activities.

I dont see women being prized and allowed to have more opportunities at all.

Mr Clovis

Only if you assume that Western ideas and standards are the reference.

Andrew Lehman

Female infanticide is a form of patrifocal sexual selection, culling out the non ideal males. See http://www.neoteny.org/?p=132#more-132.

Abortion tips selection in the opposite direction, providing females choice in a matrifocal society.

Visit http://www.neoteny.org/?cat=7 to view how the cause of autism relates to sexual selection.


Seriously, most of you should come here in China before speaking.

Without this control, what would be the population now: 1.8 or 1.9 billion (1.3 now)? In that case, maybe the imperialist ones would not be the US...

To be clear I do not support this natality control, but hey, don't you think our western governments have their own way to control it in both way, though in a softer way (reduce or increase tax reduction for big families, for instance).


Karen (#32):

The problem with making your child (or children) the center of your universe is that they get used to it. And they think they can demand it. And when they grow up and leave home, it will be a rude shock when nobody indulges them like mommy and daddy, nobody thinks they're special (because lets face it, they're probably not), and people are generally only willing to treat them well if they earn it. And they will become either:

1) Useless

2) Jerks

3) Criminals

Or some combination of the above.

I, too, was an only child, Karen. And even though I know my parents tried to make sure I wasn't spoiled, self-centeredness (albeit of an unmalicious variety) is still something I can be consciously keep in check.

This of course, is not the unyielding fate of an only child. But Chinese parents will dote on their male only children--often the ONLY hope to carry on the family name. Yes, many of these children will grow up and fulfill the time and care lavished on them. They will be bright, accomplished, skilled. But you can be a successful in an academic sense and a career sense and still be a horrible human being, and the kind of environment these young emperors grow up in? That's exactly what produces such people.



State-run/state-regulated motherhood...

possibly, the worst idea ever.


Wouldn't the lack of females in China lead to an increase in homosexuality?

In that way, the men are satisfying themselves, adn at the same time they are not reproducing anymore, making the balance balance itself out eventually?


#10: "It’s that this is a generation of men who were raised as “little emperors”–treasured only children/sons who were the center of their parents’ universe." I hope you don't imply that just by virtue of being only children these kids will grow into self-centered adults. What's wrong with making your child (or children) the center of your universe? There's not enough of that in this country these days when the TV, Web and XBox are the kids' babysitters. Yes, only children can be spoiled by irresponsible parents. Don't condemn all of China's parents to that category. I was an only child and have battled that stereotype my entire life. I was motivated to please my folks because I knew how much they loved me and that they had put all their emotional eggs in my basket. One of my greatest worries was being a disappointment to my dad.


So a surplus of men is building the manufacturing base which is what gave China a jump start into the world's economy. Now there are too many men so women's value is being raised with increased education as one positive effect. This only means that the future holds a broader, better educated population for China across the gender divide.

Millions of 'little emperors' will only serve to turn China into a more individualistic society. These little emperors are demanding more as a natural characteristic of being single children which will lead to them creating more chances and eventually receiving greater rights across the board.


Obviously no one is saying this is the only reason crime is increasing, but I think--particularly with China--there are a lot of other factors invovled, such as the rapidly increasing wealth of some people and (in a related note) the gigantic gap between rich & poor. I mean, 20 years ago, what was there to steal? A pigeon bicycle? And you wouldn't dare steal from someone who had money, because it probably meant they had power in the Party, and stealing from someone like that would not lead to good things. (Like, say, living.)

I'd also be interested to see how the crime rate has increased as the amount of "stuff to steal" (or whatever) has increased.

scott cunningham

The female shortage may play a role. See Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population for why.

Ms. this may seem funny/but no joke

Dear Nuc/mom

i am concerned about this problem. Perhaps the Chinese need to look back in their history. They would find out that they came to the brink of a war of each against all. And were it not for an experiment of a sort, we would not be here at all.


A friend to China


Hmm, be careful what you wish for. When I first heard about the selective female infanticide in Asia, I thought, great! In one generation, a shortage of women will make them tremendously more valuable. It will be worth it to invest in education for your daughter, because she will be a sought-after prize. Then, when women are valued more highly, birth rates will swing back into balance and the whole society will be better off.

I never thought about what all the unmarried -- un-marryable -- men would do in that first generation. As someone who believes that at least some small part of the suicide bombing in the Middle East is driven by men with no prospect of sex or marriage, I agree with the projections of increased violence and perhaps the increased attractiveness of war as a way to thin the "surplus" population.

A huge, spontaneous social experiment indeed.


One of my future in laws is of the opinion that instead of crime, these single young men will be mobilized into China's army for the purposes of increasing China's dominance.

Granted this sounds like a bit of a conspiracy theory, but it might end up happening just to keep the men from 'idle crime'.


Very interesting topic. We all wondered what would happen to this unwittingly unbalanced generation of young Chinese men. Some of us wonder what future social effects will be realized by affluent westerers predominantly selecting baby girls.


@#12: after the day's work is done male soldiers and sailors turn to only one thing: buggery!

@#24: the exportation of chinese women for marriage and adoption is a drop of piss in the atlantic relative to its population

M Todd

44) You bring up an interesting point, a world without siblings and especially sisters. I grew up in a blended family of 6 kids 4 boys 2 girls.

I was born in the 50s and 3-4 kids was the norm in my parents circle of friends. My parents had 3 and their siblings had 3 and 2. Three siblings having a total of 8 children.

My wife and I started our family in the late 70s and 3 was the norm. We had two children and my three brothers each had one and my two sisters had none. 6 siblings having a total of 5 children.

Our children are in their mid 20s and my nephews are 18,19 and 20. It's to early to tell, but I would guess 5 siblings will produce less than 5 off springs if the trend continues.

So if you are 20 years old and think Social Security will take care of you in 45 years, wise up now and start putting money in your IRA, because Social Security will be bankrupt.

Sandi Mays

Very interesting. I think China will be saying, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Geoff Perlman

"there are 37 million more men than women in China."

That sounds terrible of course but actually it's 2.7% of the population of China. I wish the reporters would report data like this in manner that is meaningful rather than sensational.