Karela Fry

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Is today’s sex selection an outcome of past aid policy?

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In a review of Mara Hvistendahl’s new book Unnatural Selection, the Economist writes:

1960s America was also a period of growing concern (hysteria, even) about population in developing countries. Policymakers, demographers and military men all thought rapid population growth was the biggest single threat to mankind and that drastic measures would be needed to rein it in. One such figure was Paul Ehrlich, whose book, “The Population Bomb”, became a bestseller in 1968. Mr Ehrlich pointed out that some Indian and Chinese parents would go on having daughter after daughter until the longed-for son arrived. If, he argued, they could be guaranteed a son right away, those preliminary daughters would not be born, and population growth would be lower. Sex selection became a tool in a wider battle to stop “overpopulation”.

But how did an obsession of Western policymakers turn into the widespread practice of destroying female fetuses in Asia? Partly, argues Ms Hvistendahl, through aid. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations gave over $3m to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in the 1960s, helping it to pioneer India’s first amniocentesis tests, initially for genetic abnormalities and later for identifying fetal sex. India at that time was the World Bank’s biggest client, and the bank made loans for health projects conditional on population control.

No less important, American military officers helped make abortion the population control tool of choice in those Asian countries where they wielded influence, first in Japan in the late 1940s and 1950s, then South Korea in the 1960s. USAID, America’s aid agency, provided Jeeps for mobile clinics which roamed South Korea performing abortions. At one point, a quarter of the country’s health budget was going on population control and the number of abortions hit an all-time record in Seoul, where, in 1977, there were 2.75 abortions for every live birth. “What would have happened if the government hadn’t allowed for such easy abortion?” asks one sociologist. “I don’t think sex-selective abortion would have become so popular.”

While this may not be the full story, it is a part of the story that has not been discussed before. The review, and perhaps, the book would be worth reading from this perspective.

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