Misadventures in Baby-Making (Ep. 46)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Misadventures in Baby-Making.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.) What’s it about? In a nutshell: for many years, we’ve been wowed by new technologies and policies meant to make childbirth a safer and more manageable enterprise. But, as always: beware the unintended consequences.
Given that the world’s population is approaching 7 billion, we begin the episode with a look back at another landmark moment in population history. In the late 1970’s, as we moved past the then-unfathomable 4 billion mark, scientists were trying to get a handle on population growth. In the Netherlands, Geert Jan Olsder, a math professor at the University of Twente, co-wrote a paper called “Population Planning: a Distributed Time-Optimal Control Problem,” in which he imagined an island nation with no emigration or immigration – just births and deaths. The essential riddle was this: as the population aged, and as longevity increased, what was the right birth rate to prevent the island from becoming overpopulated? Olsder came up with an elegant equation to describe the solution. Not long after, he shared this paper with a Chinese scholar who happened to be visiting the university. Olsder could never have predicted the repercussions of that chance encounter:
OLSDER: I did not realize at the time, but now that I look back and I see what the consequences were, I think that [the Chinese scholar] was triggered by this kind of scientific work. And of course he was “just” a domino in a long series of dominoes. And maybe I was also a domino, and they all started falling. And ultimately, of course, the consequences were the one-child policy in China.
This Chinese scholar, Song Jian, went on to be one of the architects of the one-child policy back home.
That story is just the first of four stories that Dubner tells in the episode. You’ll also hear how the introduction of the ultrasound machine in Asia has had a dramatic effect on gender selection. We interview Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, which examines how the ability to sex-select using the ultrasound led to the disappearance of an estimated 160 million females in Asia alone. (Amartya Sen wrote about this problem in 1990 when the number was 100 million.)
What are the consequences of a world with way too many males? More sex-trafficking, higher levels of AIDS, and a higher crime rate, to name just a few. In fact, Hvistendahl reports, the best predictor of a high murder rate in parts of India is to look at the sex ratio in the region.
You’ll also hear Steve Levitt talk about his controversial research with John Donohue that linked the passage of Roe v. Wade to the falling crime rate. The idea came to Levitt one day in the library as he leafed through the Statistical Abstract of the United States.
LEVITT: I saw that there were only about three million live births in the United States each year. And I thought to myself: One million abortions and three million live births. That means one out of every four pregnancies is ending in abortion. That just seemed shocking to me. And I thought to myself, That’s got to affect something.
Finally, we talk to Stanford researcher Stephen Quake about a new blood test that can help pregnant women learn if their babies are likely to be born with Down Syndrome. This leads to yet another moral dilemma in baby-making: as parents can learn more and more about what’s in the womb, what kind of decisions will they make? And what will the consequences be decades later?