Missing Women and Sex-Selective Abortion

By Rev. Paul Stallsworth

Editor’s note. Rev. Stallsworth is president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality. He is editor of the Taskforce’s newsletter Lifewatch from which this is taken.

Rev. Paul Stallsworth

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church forcefully declare: “…we unconditionally reject it [abortion] as a means of gender selection.” (The Book of Discipline [2008], Par. 161J, p. 105) In addition, The Book of Resolutions (2008) states: “While the members of our denomination are not of one mind over the precise conditions in which abortion can be supported, we cannot support abortion for such trivial reasons as not preferring the gender of the fetus.” (“2027. Gender-Selective Abortion,” pp. 121-123)

These statements, from The United Methodist Church, have immediate relevance in our time, as they relate to the international scene.


Mara Hvistendahl is a correspondent with Science magazine and the author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (PublicAffairs, 2011). While personally assuming a pro-choice position on abortion, Ms. Hvistendahl maintains an intellectual honesty that follows social-scientific, empirical evidence wherever it might lead. Hers is a wonderful intellectual honesty.

In his review of Unnatural Selection published by The Wall Street Journal (“The War Against Girls,” June 18, 2011), Jonathan V. Last draws from the book under review to outline the disturbing problem at hand:

“In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio is biologically ironclad. Between 104 and 106 is the normal range, and that’s as far as the natural window goes. Any other number is the result of unnatural events.

“Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, the number is 121—though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark. China’s and India’s populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107. But the imbalance is not only in Asia. Azerbaijan stands at 115, Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120.

“What is causing the skewed ration: abortion. If the male number in the sex ratio is above 106, it means that couples are having abortions when they find out the mother is carrying a girl. By Ms. Hvistendahl’s counting, there have been so many sex-selective abortions in the past three decades that 163 million girls, who by biological averages should have been born, are missing from the world. Moral horror aside, this is likely to be of very large consequence.”

Mr. Last continues:

“But oddly enough, Ms. Hvistendahl notes, it is usually a country’s rich, not its poor, who lead the way in choosing against girls. ‘Sex selection typically starts with the urban, well-educated stratum of society,’ she writes. ‘Elites are the first to gain access to a new technology, whether MRI scanners, smart phones—or ultrasound machines.’ The behavior of elites then filters down until it becomes part of the broader culture. Even more unexpectedly, the decision to abort baby girls is usually made by women—either by the mother or, sometimes, by the mother-in-law.

“If you peer hard enough at the data, you can actually see parents demanding boys. Take South Korea. In 1989, the sex ratio for the first births there was 104 boys for every 100 girls—perfectly normal. But couples who had a girl became increasingly desperate to acquire a boy. For second births, the male number climbed to 113; for third, to 185. Among fourth-born children, it was a mind-boggling 209.”

In “Where Have all the Girls Gone” (Foreign Policy, www.foreignpolicy.com, June 27, 2011), Ms. Hvistendahl retells a common story that is a chilling account. In South Korea, for example,

“by the 1970s, recalls gynecologist Cho Young-youl, who was a medical student at the time, ‘there were agents going around the countryside to small towns and bringing women into the [mobile] clinics. That counted toward their pay. They brought the women regardless of whether they were pregnant.’ Non-pregnant women were sterilized. A pregnant woman met a worse fate, Cho says: ‘The agent would have her abort and then undergo tubal ligation.’ As Korea’s abortion rate skyrocketed, Sung-bong Hong and Christopher Tietze detailed its rise in the Population Council journal Studies in Family Planning. By 1977, they determined, doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth—the highest documented abortion rate in human history. Were it not for this history, Korean sociologist Heeran Chun recently told me, ‘I don’t think sex-selective abortion would have become so popular.’”


For years, pro-life advocates had asserted that Western pro-choice activists were behind abortion aimed at controlling world population growth. Ms. Hvistendahl was resistant to this claim. “Then,” she writes,

“I looked into it, and discovered that what I thought were right-wing conspiracy theories about the nexus of Western feminism and population control actually had some, if very distant and entirely historical, basis in truth. As it turns out, Western advisors and researchers, and Western money, were among the forces that contributed to a serious reduction in the number of women and girls in the developing world. And today feminist and reproductive-rights groups are still reeling from that legacy.” (Foreign Policy)

In this quotation and in the evidence that follows, Ms. Hvistendahl’s qualifying phrase—“if very distant and entirely historical”—seems hardly necessary.

Mr. Last’s review picks up this theme:

“She spends a devastating chapter talking with Paul Ehrlich, the man who mainstreamed overpopulation hysteria in 1968 with The Population Bomb—and who still seems to think that getting rid of girls is a capital idea (in part because it will keep families from having more and more children until they get a boy). In another chapter she speaks with Geert Jan Olsder, an obscure Dutch  3 mathematician who, by an accident of history, contributed to the formation of China’s ‘One Child’ policy when he met a Chinese scientist in 1975…

“Ms. Hvistendahl also dredges up plenty of unpleasant documents from Western actors like the Ford Foundation, the United Nations, and Planned Parenthood, showing how they pushed sex-selective abortion as a means of controlling population growth. In 1976, for instance, the medical director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Malcom Potts, wrote that, when it came to developing nations, abortion was even better than birth control: ‘Early abortion is safe, effective, cheap and potentially the easiest method to administer.’

“The following year another Planned Parenthood official celebrated China’s coercive methods of family planning, noting that ‘persuasion and motivation [are] very effective in a society in which social sanctions can be applied against those who fail to cooperate in the construction of the socialist state.’ As early as 1969, the Population Council’s Sheldon Segal was publicly proclaiming the benefits of sex-selective abortion as a means of combating the ‘population bomb’ in the East. Overall Ms. Hvistendahl paints a detailed picture of Western Malthusians pushing a set of terrible policy prescriptions in a effort to road-test solutions to a problem that never actually manifested itself.”


What are the social consequences of sex-selection abortion eliminating girls by the millions?   First, the coarsening of society. Last quotes Hvistendahl: “Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live. Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent.”

For example, during westward expansion in American history, the numbers of women on the frontier were limited. In 1870, some of the sex ratios were: 166 men to 100 women in California, 320 to 100 in Nevada, and 768 to 100 in western Kansas. According to Ms. Hvistendahl, this probably had much to do with the West being truly wild.

When a society has “surplus men,” caused by too few women, those men tend to wind up in a lower socio-economic class, where violence is more prevalent. The chances are that such men will then add to the problems around them. So, in any given area, the sex ratio can become a reasonable driver of violent crimes.      

Second, the demand for women. Men in societies with fewer women will shop for, and purchase, brides. Therefore, wealthier men are more likely to secure the women they desire, while men of more modest means are often left out. Not surprisingly, in societies with imbalanced sex ratios, prostitution and sex trafficking also increase.

And third, the lessening of medical care for women in the developing world. Ms. Hvistendahl notes: “…organizations like UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) have found themselves unable to perform legitimate services in the developing world because of their historic connection to population control.” (Foreign Policy) That is, Western population control groups spread the idea of sex-selection abortion throughout the developing world; this led to the sex-selection abortion of girls; this led pro-life organizations to raise questions about the work of the Western population control groups; this led to a decrease in the funding of such groups in the West; and this led to fewer medical services provided to women in the developing world.

These consequences indicate that, while sex-selection abortion is a moral horror, it leads to horrible dysfunctions in the larger society. Again, such abortion, taken alone, is bad enough. But it results in: unrest and violence in the larger society; women being used, bought, and sold; and women unable to secure needed healthcare. 


For decades, many American feminists have been actively engaged in defending abortion rights and promoting abortion services at home and abroad. Internationally, such abortion rights and services have been employed to eliminate 163,000,000 girls around the world. So feminists have made it possible for millions and millions of their sisters around the world to be aborted. This is one of the greatest, and saddest, ironies of our time.

The [Methodist] church resolution noted above concludes with this sentence: “The General Board of Church and Society (BGCS) is encouraged to seek out and take advantage of opportunities to make this concern of our church known to national leaders of the United States and of other nations.” Has GBCS taken this encouragement to heart and expressed the church’s rejection of sex-selection abortion to national and international leaders?

Furthermore, the question cannot help but arise: Was The United Methodist Church, through its boards and agencies, involved, in any way, in the spread of the idea of sex-selection abortion for population-control reasons? Again, it is a question, not a charge. But it is a question that deserves a definitive answer from United Methodist officials.