Demographers have noted the phenomenon of skewed sex ratios for decades. Millions of females are missing because of sex-selective abortion. This has led to increased trafficking in children and women. It has also led to increased rates of suicide, depression, and substance abuse among unmarried men. But the global scale of the phenomenon and how many girls exactly have been aborted has relied on uncertain estimates.
Now, for the first time, demographers have undertaken to study the phenomenon of skewed sex ratios due to sex-selective abortion systematically across the globe in a study published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences with funding from the University of Singapore.
The natural sex ratio around the globe, with few variations due to genetics and geography, is around 1.05, or about 100 women to every 105 men. But the sex ratio at birth in many countries is in some cases dramatically skewed.
It is difficult to estimate the global impact of sex-selective abortion because abortions, and sometimes even births, are not always accurately tracked. The new study devised a statistical model for predicting the total impact of sex-selective abortion in countries that have a skewed sex ratio.
The authors found 23 million baby girls are missing globally as a “direct consequence of sex-selective abortion, driven by the coexistence of son preference, readily available technology of prenatal sex determination, and fertility decline.”
Most of these girls were aborted in mainland China, where 11.9 million girls are missing, and in India, where 10.6 million are missing. But according to the study's authors the absence of females is also statistically strong in other countries, most of which are in Asia and Eastern Europe.
The authors cite son preference and the availability of prenatal sex diagnosis, combined with the accessibility of sex-selective abortion, as the main drivers of the skewed ratios.
While the authors don't mention China's one-child policy explicitly, they implicitly recognize its devastating impact. They describe a “squeezing effect” of small family size preference on sex ratios. The authors explain that “sex-selective abortion provides a means to avoid large families while still having male offspring.”
The authors also explain that a necessary conditions for the prevalence of sex-selective abortions include “a large tolerance for induced abortion from both the population and the medical establishment,” the availability of technologies for early sex detection, and the availability of abortion in later stages of pregnancy.
The study is limited to 90 countries of out of a total of 212, which the authors identified as possessing statistical data on sex ratio for the period between 1950 and 2017.
It remains unclear if the findings of the study will have an impact on short and long-term demographic projections.
According to an interview with the lead author of the study, Fengqing Chao, in the online magazine Wired, sex ratio is a major factor in such projections. But Lyman Stone, a demographer and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Friday Fax that he did not think it would impact population forecasts.
Published with permission from C-Fam.