Sex-Selective Abortion in China

CHINAYOUREN (which, incidentally, is a blog you should absolutely be reading if you aren’t already) recently posted an incredible and strangely-overlooked piece about the frequency of sex-selective abortions in China. Julen has compared and compiled statistics from a number of different studies, including a recent CASS study that, as he helpfully points out, could hardly be accused of any anti-communist bias. The results he found speak for themselves:

Today, almost 20% of the pregnancies that happen in China are manipulated using the simple method of ultrasound scan to determine gender, followed by abortion in case it is a female.

Most first time pregnancies are natural, with only a few percent points of manipulations. This makes sense, as the 2nd trimester abortions necessary for sex selection are not without risk for the mother’s reproductive capacity. Most families prefer to assure the first descendant, knowing that if it is a girl they will get a second go anyway.

However, about 50% of the first birth parents (the same 50% who had a girl?) decide to go for a second one. It is here that the gender manipulation happens massively. Around 30% of these families manipulated their pregnancy using the method described, with some provinces like Anhui showing a rate of up to 50% manipulations for second births.

This shows that sex selective abortion is not a minority problem practiced by a few rogue parents. It is a very common occurrence, with large parts of the population and the health sector taking part in it. In spite of the illegalization of ultrasound scans for sex detection in the 90s, it is obvious that a large part of the doctors are colluding with the public to ignore the law. In short, in most parts of China practicing sex selective abortion is extremely easy and extremely common. Practically anyone can do it.

I was already aware that the ban on telling parents the gender of their children after ultrasounds was being ignored, having heard from friends who recently had a son that their doctor told them this after their ultrasound: “I can’t tell you whether the child is male or female, but it does have a penis.”

But 10% of pregnancies end with sex-selective abortions? ((Julen’s stats say that about 20% of pregnancies are “manipulated”, but in half of those cases the fetus is found to be male and the child is not aborted))The number seems shocking, but it holds up to Julen’s rigorous (and transparent) statistical analysis.

This issue, of course, raises all sorts of ethical tripwires. Should abortion be permitted at all; if so, should it be limited in any way; is aborting a child because of its gender any worse (or better) than aborting a child of unknown gender; does a woman have the right to choose the gender of her offspring? Answers to these questions will vary widely among foreigners, but given the widespread nature of this practice, it seems many Chinese have no problem with it. For our purposes here, I’m going to ignore the ethical questions entirely — not because they aren’t important but because most people have strong feelings one way or the other already.

A more controversial domestic concern is the ensuing gender imbalance. According to Julen, there are currently 7% fewer women than men being born. The birth rate in China is currently around 14 (births per year per 1,000 people in the country), which means that according to my napkin calculations, there will be about 19,600,000 children born this year. Of these, around 10,486,000 will be male, and around 9,114,000 will be female. So in this year alone, Chinese will give birth to around 1,372,000 men who are unlikely find Chinese wives. ((Note: this is a rough approximation performed in a few minutes by someone who hasn’t studied math in nearly a decade and was terrible at it when he did. Cite this statistic at your own risk.))

Much has been said about this growing wifeless demographic, and the threat it might pose to Chinese society to have such a large population of potentially sexually-frustrated men about. Certainly, the shift promises longevity to those engaged in the world’s oldest profession, as well as some assurance that the government won’t do much to crack down on it in the coming years. The Catholic Church has shown — and one assumes the Chinese government has paid some attention to this — that when men are prevented from having sex with women, a certain percentage of them ((around 10% in some areas, according to the excellent documentary Deliver Us From Evil)) will do very, very horrible things.

But could the increasing gender imbalance actually work out well for women who do survive the prenatal abortion screenings? I’ve heard from friends who think it will, and I was shocked to hear this argument, until I realized I had actually said the same thing myself in September of 2009:

The gender imbalance could, in theory, serve as an equalizing force for women. With twenty million extra guys to choose from (not counting foreign men), the pressure on women to marry young is going to be alleviated somewhat, freeing women up to pursue careers or their education more seriously (as of 2000, women lagged almost 10% behind men in literacy). Traditionally, the scare story has been that one must find a good husband while still young and pretty or risk permanent spinsterhood. With twenty million guys to spare, though, women concerned about getting married should be able to relax their timelines a bit — all the good ones are not going to be taken by the time they’re 25, 30, or ever. That relaxed timeline is likely to mean more serious female graduate students and career women, and one wonders if it might lead to its own little sexual revolution of sorts, too — with time and men to spare, why not spend a bit more time “looking”, as it were?


It would be rather delicious if the One Child Policy, which has led to some pretty horrific abuse of women and girls (because of backwards traditional mindsets, not the policy itself), ended up serving as a tool for their further emancipation precisely because of those backwards traditional ideas.

It remains an interesting idea, but now I wonder if perhaps the gender imbalance isn’t just as likely to increase misogynist attitudes and behavior, especially among the bitter men “left behind” by the fairer sex for personal or economic reasons. Accordingly, I would expect the number of rapes and other sexual assault crimes to climb. The imbalance could provide leverage to improving the status of women in Chinese society, but even if it does, what will females — from the unborn female fetuses to adult women — have to suffer through to make it to that point? Would it be worth it?

It’s a difficult question, and we look forward to continuing the discussion with the comments. Be aware that your comments may well be translated for ChinaGeeks Chinese, which will likely be compiling a post based on this piece, Julen’s post, and the discussion both here and on CHINAYOUREN.

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0 thoughts on “Sex-Selective Abortion in China”

  1. “Should abortion be permitted at all?” – I haven’t heard this question asked in China. Have you?

    Is there a “large population of potentially sexually-frustrated men”? I mean, theoretically I can see that should be. But is there any evidence to show that? The assumption, of course, is that women are having sex with one man, but are they?


  2. Abortion is quite normal in China. Married women sometimes may choose to have an abortion if they don’t want to have a baby when they feel a lot of pressure from work. an unmarried woman, the best choise for her after she is pregnant will be abortion since the child cannot get the resident permit.

    There are some problems for the younger male generation to find their girlfriend or wife, espeically in the rural area. some of our friends, young college graduates, cannot find girlfriends since they don’t have much money and there are less women in their same age. It will be a big problem for China in the future in our eyes


  3. Thanks for the link, Custer. I am glad someone finally pays attention to this, I think it is very interesting.

    The ratio of 120+ (roughly) is well known for years already, there is no real breakthrough in the CASS article. But I think the way to present the results in terms of “% manipulated pregnancies” is so much more useful than the birth ration. It really speaks of what Chinese people are doing, and it even surprised myself when I got the results.

    I am offline this week as I am overwhelmed with work. I am planning to come back to this soon and do a little follow-up.


  4. Julen did a great job breaking down the statistics. As for the conclusion, here there is still much room for debate.
    There are two assumptions here which I think deserve a more thorough discussion:
    1. The assumption that marriage, or a long term partnership between a woman and a man is a natural and desirable arrangement.
    2. The assumption that men would unavoidably turn violent/problematic if not provided sex (and other domestic services?) by women.
    Need to give it some more thought.


  5. I think as China grows more wealthy they will – just like Koreans and Taiwanese – start to “import” wives first from Chinas poorer regions and then from poorer southeast Asian countries instead of actually doing something about the gender imbalance. That would of course only widen the poverty gap. Surely will be interesting to observe I guess.


  6. Beyond sex selective abortion is the simple problem of irresponsible sexual habits in China in general. I had a friend admit to me that he had had 5 different girlfriends have abortions due to unwanted pregnancies. Why? Because they didn’t wear protection when having sex. The stigma around simple birth control methods in China is huge problem, and abortion as a means of birth control is much more prevalent than many people realize.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a woman who is unprepared to take care of a child should have one because it is the “moral” thing to do. I’m saying that their are safer methods of preventing pregnancy for women that due to lack of education and taboo are in many cases being irresponsibly ignored.

    That being said, abortion is a personal choice, and although I do not find it ethical to abort a baby at 4-5 months (which is the time during which you can actually determine sex), people are free to make their own judgment calls on what is right. I don’t buy the argument that the rights of the individual woman and her partner over her own body are subservient to the needs of general population gender imbalance. A much better way to combat the gender bias would be through education and also a serious investment in improving the educational and occupational opportunities for women in China. If women can be seen to have the same opportunities as men to succeed in life and support their families, then more people may drop the whole belief that you need a male heir to provide for the family.


  7. I think you’re right to rethink your position on the likelihood of greater freedom of choice for Chinese women as a result of the gender imbalance. Indeed, like you, I also believe it may be much worse for Chinese women as they will likely face enormous pressure to marry. It’s nice to think that Chinese men, when faced with the challenge of finding a Chinese bride, will all be on their best behavior, but I think that’s utter fantasy. Simply put, in the years ahead, it may be increasingly socially unacceptable (as if it wasn’t already socially unacceptable!) for Chinese women to remain single, pursue higher education, or concentrate on developing careers when so many Chinese men are desperate to find wives.


  8. People who abort babies in China when they find out it’s a girl are just ignorant, uneducated, naive, morons who are lowlifes to begin with. When their sons grow up in China in 20 years from now and turn homosexual, they should put the blam on themselves because they’re idiots.


  9. What kind of Chinese morons die their 4 year old son’s hair with the tips dyed blonde and a long strand of hair in the back? That’s right, people, lowclass IDIOTS. I’m Chinese and embarrassed by these types of people. Seriously!


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