Bring Your Questions for Mara Hvistendahl, Author of Unnatural Selection

Mara Hvistendahl‘s research features prominently in our latest podcast, “Misadventures in Baby-Making.” Her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, looks at how advancements in prenatal technology have led to extreme cases of gender selection across much of Asia.

As economic development spurs people in developing countries to have fewer children and gives them access to technologies such as ultrasound, parents are making sure that at least one of their children is a boy. As a result, sex-selective abortion has left more than 160 million females “missing” from Asia’s population. It’s estimated that by 2020, 15 percent of men in China and northwest India will have no female counterpart. The consequences of that imbalance are far-reaching and include rises in sex-trafficking, bride-buying and a spike in crime as well.

Mara is currently a Beijing-based correspondent for Science. She has kindly agreed to answer your questions on her book and research. So, as always, fire away in the comments section, and we will post her replies in due course. In the meantime, here is the table of contents of Unnatural Selection.

Part One: “Everyone Has Boys Now”
Chapter One: The Demographer
Chapter Two: The Parent
Chapter Three: The Economist
Chapter Four: The Doctor
Chapter Five: The Imperialist

Part Two: A Great Idea
Chapter Six: The Student
Chapter Seven: The Doomsayer
Chapter Eight: The Geneticist
Chapter Nine: The General
Chapter Ten: The Feminist

Part Three: The Womanless World
Chapter Eleven: The Bride
Chapter Twelve: The Prostitute
Chapter Thirteen: The Bachelor
Chapter Fourteen: The World
Chapter Fifteen: The Baby

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.


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  1. Melissa says:

    Trying to think freakonomically, and not having read Unnatural Selection yet, I would think that any argument about the consequences of males not having a “counterpart” in terms of numbers should need to account for how that plays out in countries (like in Saudi Arabia) where men are allowed more than one wife, and thus causing a shortage of women for other men without doing it by birth rate. Are the effects claimed for the shortage-by-prebirth-technology seen in these countries too?

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  2. Mark says:

    Given the one-child policy in China, wouldn’t sex-selective abortion be simultaneously generating ‘extra’ boys in place of ‘missing’ girls? Do estimates of total missing females account for such an effect, or is the male birth rate treated as independent of parental preferences?

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  3. Mike B says:

    While there certainly are downsides with unattached men getting into trouble and being rowdy, won’t a shortage in females help increase the value and position of women in cultures that have been historically resistant to providing them an equal place in society? In theory they should be able to demand higher standards during courtship and once married the threat of divorce would ensure better behavior on the part of men. Of course a shortage of workers is one of the economic per-requisites to slavery so I guess it can go both ways.

    Other advantages include future population declines due to the lack of females and enhanced tolerance for homosexual men to help reduce demand.

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  4. Nikia says:

    I’m curious about potentially positive unexpected outcomes of the one child policy in China in terms of gender equality and opportunity for women. I would expect that for many families, resources that otherwise might have been disproportionally channeled towards sons had there been multiple children, are instead focused on a single daughter. Wouldn’t this have substantial impacts in terms of education, expectations, status, employment opportunity, earning power, etc. for women born since 1980?

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  5. Wendybird13 says:

    I’ve read Unnatural Selection, and it left me curious about the demographics of aging countries.

    You stated that in some areas that had periods with very high sex ratio imbalances, they tended to reduce over time. Is there enough data yet to indicate whether overall birth rate recovers in the following generation, or does it become a downward spiral of shrinking population? Presumably the number of children per woman will have to go up, or the population will shrink in each subsequent generation.

    It seems like the whole world is struggling to find a way to succeed with shrinking populations and shrinking consumer markets. Do missing girls accelerate the shrinkage?

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    • Jon says:

      Struggling to succeed with shrinking population? Are you kidding me? The last thing China, India, and the world at large need are MORE children. We’re bumping up against 7 billion and can barely (if at all) feed what we have. Sounds like a blessing in disguise.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    as to the sex-trafficking issue: is the overall increase in trafficking towards areas of wealth (first world) or towards areas of unnatural selection (Asia)

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  7. James says:

    I can’t help but wonder why it is that, in all the discussions I’ve seen on this problem, no one seems to think outside the conventional box to the obvious solution: plural marriage. See for instance R.A. Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, in which the same problem is addressed.

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    • Rob says:

      Key differences between “Mistress” and what you have going on in Asia:
      1) The imbalance is not nearly as great

      2) The Loonies were criminals, predisposed to rejecting social norms. That’s not generally the case here.

      3) It’s fiction. We have historical examples of this kind of thing in American frontier towns. Plural marriage could only be said to have occurred in certain of the cat houses, where someone would “marry” the happy couple so that they could pretend they weren’t sinning. I think that in some cultures this is still a common practice. Google “Nikah Mut’ah”

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  8. Michael Lewin says:

    What kind of incentive or deterrent – legal, economical or other – do you think could stop this practice without penalizing those who have an abortion for other reasons?

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