The Misbegotten Male: Male Sex-Selection & Female Abortion By Cynthia Garrity Bond

I turned away and, despite myself, the tears came, tears
Of weakness and disappointment; for what woman
wants a girl for her first-born?  They took the child from
me.  Kali said: “Never mind.  There will be many later
On.  You have plenty of time”
To our modern sensibility, the ancient Greeks understanding of procreation is as far reaching as say Nordstrom’s may be to any dollar store.  To the Greeks, men’s testicles had a particular function or job to fulfill: the left one produced girls with the right one producing boys.  For Aristotle, if you were willing to “man-up” and take the pain, tie off your left testicle during intercourse in order to insure the birth of a son.  In this formula, if something were to go wrong, even though you followed the correct game plan and a girl was born instead of the hope for son, something obviously went wrong at conception, thus the term “The Misbegotten Male,”i.e. a daughter, as the misbegotten.  
In her recent article, “Where Have All the Girls Gone?”  science journalist Mara Hvistendahl questions how more than 160 million women go missing from Asia? In 2008, the AIDS virus claimed 25 million worldwide, while the HIV virus garnered one-fourth of global spending on health with its own UN agency.  Sex selection alone has claimed over 160 million potential girls/women in Asia alone.  To date, 160 million is more than the entire female population in the U.S.  This data is a reflection of the past 30 years of research into the sex-selection and abortion of females.
The culprit for this large imbalance of boys to girls ration, claims French demographer Christophe Guilmoto is technology, or rather the use of an inexpensive ultrasound used by pregnant women as a means of sex determination. Women are, in record numbers, aborting female fetuses.  In Hvistendahl’s initial research for her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World full of Menshe relied on her initial thesis that gender discrimination was by and large due to a lack opportunity, “The best way to convince couples to have girls,” argued Hvistendahl, “is to improve the status of women by boosting opportunities for education and career advancement.”  While this is part of the solution, this does not complete the picture.
As countries gain wealth, social scientist believed the status of girls and women would improve as their country moved farther along the economic grid of development. But this has not necessarily proven to be true.  Geographical variations have given some insight.  For example, the following countries have abnormal sex birth ratios: East Asia (China, Taiwan,Singapore and Vietnam), South Asia (India and Pakistan), and West Asia (Armenia,Azerbaijan, and Georgia).  Sex selection occurred among Hindus, Muslims and Christians; “among ethnic and political rivals; in economic powerhouses and in countries just on the cusp of development.” In other words, while parents in nearly all cultures say they prefer boys, not all countries participate in sex selection. Demographer Guilmoto has arrived at three common threads that unite countries with gender imbalances:
1.     The countries where sex selection is occurring are developing rapidly with sophisticated health care systems making use of prenatal screening.
2.       The practice of abortion is pervasive, with high use of it as a contraception method.
3.       Most affected countries have recently experienced a drop in fertility.
Additionally, Guilmoto found sex selection highest among urban, educated couples.  This makes sense given the cost of accessing prenatal screening with the option of an ultrasound.
Coercive use of abortion by men does exist, but in comparatively smaller numbers.  By and large the abortions are the desire of the pregnant woman or her mother-in-law as a means of up grading her sons status.  According to Reproductive Health Matters,  “For women attempting to have a son and experiencing pressure to fulfill their ‘womanly duty’ by having a male child, sex-selection abortion an be extremely empowering.”  Having a son increases a couples street cred, “A son is crucial to keeping up appearances” explains a woman who has aborted two females, “If you don’t have a boy, you lose face.”
I find the tension between pro-choice and anti-abortion presented here by Hivistendahl to be compelling.  On the one hand, Western rhetoric (while politically adrift) has supported a woman’s right to choose, to have self-determination over her own body when it comes to reproductive rights. By objecting to sex-selection abortion, has Hvistendahl wanted it both ways?  Do we (those under Western eyes), deny the same right to our transnational sisters or do we qualify the particulars under which women may seek abortion?  Or, as Mary Daly would argue, have these women been co-opted by patriarchy into believing maleness trumps femaleness by  a disproportionate abortion rate of females?   States Daly,
                        Women are [also] spooked by other women who act as instrumental
                        agents for patriarchal males, concurring, with varying degrees of
                        conscious complicity, [in all of the above tactics.]*
I am always saddened when I hear the desire of a pregnant woman to have a son before a daughter.  Why is this?  Even in those developing countries where the birth of a daughter will be an expense due to her dowry, by-and-large it will be the daughter who cares for the aged parents, not the sons.  While our understanding of reproductive biology informs the scientific explanation for sex determination, why is it the desire for maleness first seems to capture our sensibilities?  If, as the proverb states, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, then the last thirty year trajectory of male sex-selection, has, as Hvistendahl argues, the sky sagging.

Author: Cynthia Garrity-Bond

Cynthie Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, transnational feminism and ecofeminism. Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

9 thoughts on “The Misbegotten Male: Male Sex-Selection & Female Abortion By Cynthia Garrity Bond”

  1. Cynthie, this is an excellent piece for complicating my support of ‘women’s right to choose’. Though I am one to support that right, you make a good point of reminding us that the conditions under which women are choosing are definitely not neutral. Choices are made in value-laden conditions, and those values may not be ones we agree with – thus complicating our support of women’s right to choose…


  2. One of the powers or virtues of feminist theorizing is that it has generally valorized contextualist approaches to moral reasoning and also sought to go beyond the rhetoric of choice (n.b., incidentally, this is why bumper sticker or slogan versions of reproductive freedom may serve their purposes on the streets, even though they fail to capture the full moral dimensions of what is involved in discussions on abortion).

    It is accordingly NOT inconsistent for a feminist to strategically use the rhetoric of autonomy and bodily integrity in our American context but then also raise deeper questions about sex-selective abortion in other contexts (the point being that “choice” anywhere and everywhere is always tied to socio-economic factors, which is to say that one’s preferences are highly adaptive).

    Thanks for posting this – and also for making reference to Mary Daly’s work. My “feminist ethics” class will be discussing her Gyn/Ecology this Wednesday!


  3. Carol,
    Yes, you are correct on both counts, the practice of sex selection in the U.S. + the global consequence of sex trafficking of your women.

    Xochitl, I do feel it’s important to muddy the waters a bit when it comes to something as abortion since both sides are usually inflexible in their stance. I simply found the two diverse positions with the same outcome (abortion) to be an interesting tension. And yes Dr. Kao, it is the job of feminism to deconstruct practices that may initially appear incongruent in nature when culturally compared.

    I recall my experience in the classroom when I rejected FGM, regardless of where the objection was coming from, meaning a Western judgment on a muslim practice. I held my ground, but was a lone voice in the mix. The abortion of female’s is targeted regardless of which culture it is coming from and must be stopped, if not for the obvious reasons of male to female ratio.

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.


  4. Cynthie,
    I read an article about this 160 million women missing a few months ago and found it all terribly disturbing. I remember the article mentioning that there is a class element here — since men of a higher class can usually still marry women of a lower class in these places where there is a gender imbalance, that means that the poor men are left without options for marriage and family. How sad.

    This is all rather tender for me right now. I just found out yesterday that I would be having a boy, and I was having a hard time with it. I so wanted a girl. Not because I don’t/won’t adore my sons but because it messed up my plan for ideal birth order and the friendships I hoped to see develop between my children. So while I find sex selective abortion troubling, a part of me realizes with guilt that I engage in similar mental processes of feeling joy/disappointment about the sex of my unborn children.


  5. Caroline,
    When I was pregnant with my first, I was so convinced I was having a boy (which i wanted), I did not really consider girl names or anything associated with a girl. When Lindsay finally came into the world, and the words were pronounced “It’s a girl!” my heart dropped. I recall saying to my then husband, “Are you ok with a girl?”

    The reality of my own conflicted past as a female with 6 brothers (and no sisters) was not a great template for knowing what to do with a girl. Honestly, I found the female sex to be weak, vulnerable and beyond anything I felt I could relate to.

    The Universe knew better of course. I’ve tried very hard not to co-mingle my childhood wounds with the raising of my daughters. I’m also very guilty of the male sex-selection as well, finding (then) more worth and value in the male sex.

    Much (than the Goddess) has changed through the years, but I do understand your desire for a second girl.

    Thanks for the rich comments.


  6. Cynthie Garrity-Bond

    Sex selective abortion especially female killing is very unfortunate and inhuman practice which is occurred not only any particular country but various regions of the world. Obliterating female being from the earth is a serous issue and serious concern of an individual. I am a research scholar in this subject, so kindly give me some feminist theological views about this issue.


  7. First off, I would never ask my husband if he is “okay” with having a girl. Do men ever ask women if we are “okay” with having a boy? I don’t think that boys are the “preferred” sex at all. I think that false measures have been set up to ensure that boys will be wanted, and these measures handicap girls. Think of needing a boy to carry on the family name, or a boy providing social security. To make it sound like boys are just wanted more than girls as if this is somehow “natural” is false. Boys have been given advantages which to me says there is a fear that women will want girls, therefore we BETTER MAKE SURE they want boys. In India, having a girl actually means a debt. That’s one surefire way to make sure people want boys. And when these restrictions are lifted, old habits remain. As for people in the U.S. wanting boys, I question that. First off, just about every woman I know wants a girl, and stats show that sex selection in the US favors females. I think the studies are more about machismo and men feeling more pressure to stick together for their own gender. Frankly, alot of the men I’ve seen who overemphasize wanting sons don’t seem that sincere. It’s more about a competition Women have more important things to worry about. Also, in Asian cultures, they were taught that boys will even look after them in the afterlife. But in both Japanese and South Korea, the studies show that they now prefer girls. South Korea had a gender imbalance which has since been corrected, this can happen in China and India too. There is nothing natural about son preference. It is something that is forced upon women and I also think there is a desire to reduce the female population to make women easier to control. I do think education for women is key, because it gives women a voice. It wasn’t that long ago in the US that men would say they wanted a son to carry on the family name. Now women are much more vocal about wanting girls. Frankly, I would never marry a man who cared that much about wanting a son. After all, I will be the one bringing the life into the world. If anyone is going to have an opinion about what gender it should be or if I will be “okay” with it, it should be me.


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