Misadventures in Baby-Making (Ep. 46)

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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?


Enter your name...

The US engages in a lot of righteous condemnation of Asia's girl-killing abortion policies.

I was consequently quite surprised recently to discover that it's perfectly legal in all 50 states to abort a healthy baby solely because you don't like its sex. It seems to me that before we pound on the table and demand that Asia fix its problems, we should be taking the very medicine that we're prescribing to them.

Mike Lemmer

A few counterpoints come to mind:

1. In China's case, there's a difference between supporting legal abortion & supporting "encouraged" abortion.

2. It is reasonable to support abortion but denounce the gender discrimination that causes imbalances.

3. The conflict is not whether it's legal but how often it's happening. If two groups both have legal drinking, and the first group is rarely intoxicated while the second is often intoxicated, then the former has a basis for scolding the latter. If the US was missing 16 million women due to abortions, then the hypocrisy argument would have merit.

4. "The US" is a large group. I'm sure the pro-lifers are thrilled that you've labeled their condemnations "hypocrisy" by lumping them with the pro-choicers.

Enter your name...

Mike, I don't see the word "hypocrisy" anywhere in my comment. Speaking as a moderately pro-life, anti-capital punishment person, I would never label the efforts of the only group of people that has paid the slightest attention to this strange anomaly as being hypocritical for publicly saying that we need to review our own conduct before we start lecturing India (where killing girl fetuses solely because they are girls is already illegal) about its problems.

(I am willing to consider whether *some* of the pro-choice feminists are being hypocritical for completely ignoring the issue while professing to protect all females.)

The larger hypocrisy, though, is our whole society, and especially its government officials, condemning Indian families for aborting girls while we say that it's just fine for American families to abort girls—say, on the grounds that American families are only killing a small proportion of girls, so it doesn't cause massive societal disruption. I don't want American laws to condone even a little bit of gender-driven abortion, exactly like I don't want our laws to condone even a little bit of domestic violence or drunk driving.


George Burdell

One thing jumped right out as I was listening to the statistics. 3 million births, 1 million abortions a year in the US. This does NOT mean that 1 of every 4 pregnancies ends in abortion, that's a misleading stat or conclusion, unless "abortion" counts all of the miscarriages and natural losses of the child. I don't believe it does. Furthermore, the 3 million is "live births" as quoted by Steve in the piece. While infant mortality is terrible to consider, the infant mortality rate is 6/1000 in the US in 2011.

Thus in reporting statistics, they actually disregarded or failed to mention 2 of the 4 outcomes of a pregnancy (live birth, infant mortality, abortion, miscarriage).

(citation from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html)

ben w

I think Levitt's point is related only to what changed with Roe. That is, the miscarriage rate and the rate of infant mortality probably only changed minimally (if at all) because of Roe, yet the abortion rate grew significantly. If those other rates remained essentially unchanged, you get a constant by which to compare other factors. That is, it leaves the question to: "what effects are correlated with an increased abortion rate?" The exact ratio of live births to abortions to .... was not the issue.


Relevant article from Reuters that touches on other externalities of female baby abortions particularly in India. Primarily, that there are fewer women to go around in rural areas which can result in higher incidents of "rape, human trafficking and the emergence of 'wife-sharing' amongst brothers." Ugly stuff.



Holland is one of the provinces in the Netherlands. Twente isn't in Holland.


In your book "Freakonomics" you claim that abortion reduced crime in the U.S. But I have a quarrel with that. You claim that after abortion became legal, the crime rate began to drop and didn't stop until it hat "fallen back to the levels of forty years earlier." (page 118.)

Forty years EARLIER . . . abortion was NOT legal. Obviously, there's something else going on with the crime rate besides the availability of abortion.

And now I learn that abortion INCREASES the crime rates in other countries because of its use for sex-selection. Devastating. And the effects are only starting to be felt.

Yes, the U.S. is missing over 25 MILLION female babies . . . along with 25 million MALE babies.

Those missing citizens could have solved our economic crisis AND the Social Security problem. Each American citizen provides on average about 2 million dollars of productivity in their lifetime (supply AND demand). Do the math. Think about it.



"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?"

90% of people diagnosed in-utero with Down Syndrome are aborted. Ubiquitous in-utero diagnosis and abortion will result in far fewer DS children and adults. It is unlikely that research on cures for DS will continue at the same pace with when demand goes dow with those diminished numbers. Speaking for myself, I wonder whether insurance companies and the government will continue covering expensive treatments for people with DS when bringing them into the world is clearly a choice? I don't think there is danger of that now, but I wonder about 20 years from now when in-utero diagnosis is more advanced and common.


"As it turns out, there’s one particular kind of parent for whom this son preference is overwhelmingly strong. These are parents who are having a third child when their first two are daughters. In such cases, among these parents, sons outnumber daughters by 50 percent."

Can someone clarify/correct this for me. Is Dubner saying the sex ratio of the third child is 1.5 to 1? Or among those families they have a ratio of 1.5 sons to daughters. (I find this unlikely because if the third child is a son they would have to have two more sons for a total of 5 children to reach that ratio). And if it is the first case then those families are by definition increasing the ratio of girls to boys (if they stop once they have a boy).

I understand the point of the statement is to demonstrate high income people also exhibit a boy bias. But unless you only like girls, then after having two its not unreasonable to think a couple without sex bias would also want a boy.



Byron, If people were truly unbiased and were willing to accept either gender, then the desire for "balanced" gender ratios would strike both parents of 2 older girls and parents of 2 older boys equally. It doesn't. Parents who have two boys are perfectly willing to have a third boy if they get pregnant again. It is only parents who have two older girls who find the thought of another girl repulsive.


Ah, you're right. An unbiased couple would equally desire a boy or girl after any sequence. However, I think there is a distinction to be made between an unbiased couple and those who desire a balanced gender ratio. Those parents would desire the less represented gender (either in their family or maybe overall)

But my point was more towards the outcome than the preferences of the parents, i.e. if parents already have 2 girls and are only seeking to have a boy then even if they do they are not contributing to the imbalance. (assuming they don't just want to keep having more boys, which I think is reasonable in the US where large families are rare)


http://www.nationalrighttolifenews.org /news/ 2011/11/%e2%80%9cmisadventures-in-baby-making%e2%80%9d-or-choosing-to-evade-the-truth/#more-6097

It's time to let go of the baloney about unwanted children and crime. It's been debunked, plain and simple. Killing children does NOT reduce crime. And stop evading the truth about what these tests often mean for Down's Syndrome babies. It's time to be open about the near 100 percent certainty of the tests and the fact that so many Down's babies die because of it.


Others that did not have ultrasound machine, figured ways to kill girl child. So if the child is destined to die, I think its better they are aborted than to be killed in so many different ways and if it survives through all these all the girl knows is she is unwanted and unworthy.


Rita, If what you claim is true true, then the current sex imbalance would not have grown so dramatically in the last decade or two. Combining ultrasound with abortion is not just another option for killing females who are "destined to die" via other means in misogynistic cultures: it is a new way that makes it both easier and more culturally acceptable to kill one's female offspring. For confirmation of this, talk to a male Chinese grad student at our local university and ask how difficult it is for him to find a Chinese bride vs. his father's generation.


And another CASUAL misrepresentation of facts:
the myth of blaming rape-victims way of " if these poor rapists had enough sex..."
voluntary sexuality has NOTHING AT ALL to do with rape.
rapists WANT to destroy, tear up, besmirch - they try to feel power and search for a weaker individual who cannot fight back.
Get a statistics, how many pederasts are married!
Why are so many victims children, disabled persons, or those in situations which make them helpless, like refugees or jail inmates( rape victims not even female!) ??

Therefore the number of women cannot have a direct connection with the risk of rape, you math wizzes should be able to get indirect connection, for example the low value of women in exact those religions which enforce the having of sons, the - US-too - religious propaganda for big families, pressure to live in oldfashoined gender roles...


Quaint piece of "data": "The best predictor of a high murder rate in parts of India is to look at the sex ratio in the region." I haven't read the study but I'd love to see if this is a confusion between the cause instead of the effect. I'd be interested to see if the local violence is a culturally accepted behavior and if women are the weakest ones exposed to violence therefore dropping their numbers as fatalities. I point this out due to the fact that. being all things equal- the sex ratio should remain pretty much the same universally. So, Is there a study about what causes the sex ratio to favor men instead of women in the aforementioned areas in India?