Aborting Girls, Keeping Boys in China

New technology often generates widely differing guesses of its impact on society. Not so with the widely available ultrasound scanner in China where married couples are prohibited by the government from having more than one or two children.

As tens of thousands of these scanners, costing $1000 each, find their way to an emerging market economy of private physicians and pharmacists in tens of thousands of villages, a very personal use has become very popular. Although illegal for physicians to tell parents the gender of their fetus, a carton of cigarettes or a $50 bribe will put the scanner to work to do just that. The result will have seriously destabilizing effects on millions of Chinese in about two decades. The reason is that Chinese culture places a much higher premium on producing baby boys than baby girls. Males are seen as being able to care for their elderly parents better than females. Also the family line goes through the male heir.

So the scanner, with a fair degree of accuracy (perhaps 80% of the time) reveals the sex of the fetus. When it predicts a girl, many times the fetus is aborted. A recent article in the New York Times details the startling statistics. In 1964 the sex ratio at birth was about what it is for other societies — around 104 male births to 100 female births. In 1982 the ratio rose to 107. In 1990 the ratio climbed to 113.8 and in 1992 it came close to 118. Given China’s huge population (1.17 billion), the Times estimates “1.7 million missing girls each year.”

Not all this number is due to abortions stemming from the ultra sound scanner business in this underground economy of corruption and bribery. There are abandonment, underreporting of girls to avoid birth quotas, “gifts” of baby girls to relatives and some infanticide. The most remote villages in China are said to know about and use the scanner. The Times reporter quoted one village peasant as telling him: “Last year we had only one girl born in the village — everybody else had boys.”

The scanner knows no national boundaries. In Korea the sex ratio of infants is 113 boys to 100 girls. India is discovering the scanner as will any country where the culture prefers boys. There is no known country where girls are so widely preferred.

Articles in the Chinese press already talk about “bachelor villages” in twenty years. They will be writing about many other stresses and imbalances in the coming years as the sex ratio becomes ever more male-tilted.

Scanners are just the vanguard of technologies that will place wrenching choices before people regarding their offspring. As retired Harvard biology professor, Ruth Hubbard, discusses in her new book “Exploding the Gene Myth,” (Beacon Press), genetic engineering knowledge and technology can be terribly misused to discriminate against workers, consumers needing insurance, breed new types of malpractice and hucksterism, and in the hands of autocratic authorities create the latest edition of a eugenics horror.

No society is prepared to discuss, evaluate and judge these awesome practices and choices. The speeding science and technology–locked in the grip of profit-hungry corporations, government grants and prize-seeking scientists — have far outpaced the fabric of social customs, judgments and restraints.

Already, companies are pushing genetically engineered products to make children grow two to three more inches by the time they are sixteen. Think of the “science fiction” descending into family reality, when genetic alteration companies, at a price, can claim to change one’s looks, one’s performance in a particular sport such as swimming, one’s success with certain kinds of academic tests or types of workplace skills.

The technology of transplanting body parts — considered a salvation for the survivor — is generating markets of desperation in countries such as Brazil and India. Impoverished parents, unable to provide for their children, are offering a kidney or an eye for the growing transplant market.

Basic moral principles have to extend and embrace these technological challenges and provocations. Otherwise, the college students of the Fifties who read the novels “1984” and “Brave New World” will see that these fictional works are understatements of reality in the early 21st century.

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