We live on a planet that is approaching a population of seven billion people. The explosion in population is relevant because of increasingly serious problems like climate change, access to resources, and the just distribution of wealth and poverty. The best known population control policy is China’s one-child policy but other nations, like India, have also applied forms of birth control such as mandatory or incentive-based sterilization. While there seems to be no good argument against curbing population — especially when one considers quality of life and its relation to poverty and development — the rights and voices of women must be central.
The overconsumption of resources by Americans, Japanese and increasingly so by Europeans is an important factor but it must be considered along with under-consumption by the vast majority of people in developing countries. In order for all people around the globe to live healthy, productive, and meaningful lives we must come to terms with what is sustainable for our fragile environment and how a quickly expanding population may deter us from reaching those goals. Well-meaning population control policies have not always been entirely successful and in some instances they have led to some terrible consequences. One of those consequences is gendercide, where females are simply killed for being female.
Gendercide has often been most publicized in quickly growing developing countries like China and India. Harrowing tales of missing girl babies aren’t difficult to come by in societies where, despite recent development and progress, sexist preferences for sons over daughters persist. A recent book by Mara Hvistendahl outlines the pitfalls and tragedies in Asian countries where the dawn of widely available technology has brought about sex unbalanced societies. The world’s two most populous nations, China and India, may have different laws governing population growth and have outlawed sex specific abortion, but they are both beginning to struggle with a society that is missing millions of females.
The ample availability of sex determining ultrasound technology, access to abortion and almost routine infanticide has led to an abnormal ratio between males and females. In both nations, it is clear that the rewards of modern development and increased prosperity don’t always yield the best results when paired with patriarchal pressures. As Ms. Hvistendahl discussed on NPR, this pressure for sons in places where smaller family size is a modern norm has led to not only a rise in the abortion of daughters, but also over time a sharp rise in kidnapping for marriage, sex-trafficking, marriage to multiple men, violence, and general despair among men who cannot find a partner.
Sex-selective abortion is a larger problem in affluent parts of both India and China, clearly showing that accumulation of wealth is not something that deters people from the practice. Actually, rich societies across Asia are beginning to notice an uneven sex ratio and bachelors in those nations including South Korea and Taiwan are gradually using mail order bride services, or sourcing women from regions or countries that do not share in this problem. Various factors considered, the combination that is proving so damning is a trifecta of old-fashioned son preference, recent trends for smaller families, and sex identification technology. In India, billboards have popped up recently, in a public campaign attempt to curtail the killing of baby girls and sex-selective abortion. Also, universities are beginning a full scholarship program awarded to only daughters, presuming that the parents of this individual did not engage in gender selection.
It may seem like sex and gender discrimination are strictly dilemmas of the developing world or very traditional cultures, however in a recent AlterNet piece, Jessica Mack discussed a poll by Gallup that uncovered some uncomfortable realities about attitudes toward male children right here in the United States, where sex selection is increasingly relevant at in-vitro clinics. A doctor from a Los Angeles fertilization clinic voiced that in his experience there is a large preference for girls, however, not by his clients from India or China. He did add that overall the preferences for male or female seem to be 50/50, but wouldn’t even the slightest preference for one sex have the potential to be dangerous in practice? A recent article about a more widely available sex determination test as early as seven weeks after conception, provides many clues into why this technology could have devastating effects in a still largely male preference dominated world. While such tests advance prenatal care in situations where genetic disorders are sex-linked, simply making them available to the wider population may not be the wisest decision. These super early sex determination tests amplify the obsession with preconceived, stereotypical notions about and plans for boys or girls, hardly a progressive step considering the largely sexist world we still unfortunately operate in.
People’s longstanding gender prejudices, combined with very real threats of overpopulation and the misuse of medical technology, have resulted in drastic and oftentimes tragic outcomes. Besides worrying about the unsustainability of nine billion people on Earth, we should take productive and just steps. A family planning policy like China’s does not seem compatible with the values of human rights and reproductive freedom. Resigning millions of women to keep having children that they do not want or may not be able to care for is also not a solution. Abortion as birth control in the absence of widely available contraceptives and education is not a good enough option either.
The most promising way forward is to ensure that population growth is checked by females becoming universally valued. That solution resides in empowering women and girls across the world, with regard to education, non-discrimination, access to contraception, and decision making potential. For a long time we have known that women who spend more time in school not only have a better chance of having healthy children but also that they tend to have fewer children. Mandates that force women to have many children or forbid them from doing so both have devastating consequences. In any discussion about the Earth’s fate and overpopulation, women themselves with full rights should have their own voices heard.