Are Skewed Sex Ratios In America’s Future?
Between numerous newspaper and magazine articles, a report by the World Health Organization, and Mara Hvistendahl’s new book Unnatural Selection, it is safe to declare this the “Summer of Sex Selection” given widespread attention to the topic. This robust conversation is being driven by radically skewed sex ratios in some parts of the world that are wreaking demographic havoc. Son preference, along with increasing access to prenatal sex determination, has led to an estimated 160 million so-called “missing” girls – an astonishing figure that has led some localities to experience out of whack sex ratios that reportedly approach 200 boys born for every 100 girls.
I find it interesting that almost every conversation of this phenomenon in Western media outlets discusses son preference as some bizarre cultural practice that “those people do over there,” like bartering at a market. The ubiquitous yet subtly important phrase “in India and China” that highlights most of these accounts makes it seem like the devaluation of girls and women is uniquely Asian and South Asian – perhaps something that they’ll outgrow as they continue to buy Big Macs and Westernize.
But a recent Gallup poll suggests otherwise:
Gallup has asked Americans about their preferences for a boy or a girl -- using slightly different question wordings over the years -- 10 times since 1941. In each instance, the results tilt toward a preference for a boy rather than a girl. The average male child-preference gap across these 10 surveys is 11 percentage points, making this year's results (a 12-point boy-preference gap) just about average. Gallup found the largest gap in 1947 and 2000 (15 points) and the smallest in a 1990 survey (4 points).
The attitudes of American men drive the overall preference for a boy; in the current poll, conducted June 9-12, men favor a boy over a girl by a 49% to 22% margin. American women do not have a proportionate preference for girls. Instead, women show essentially no preference either way: 31% say they would prefer a boy and 33% would prefer a girl.
It’s tempting to conclude that perhaps we’re not so different after all when it comes to the preferred sex of our children. But, it’s important to point out that a preference for sons may not be the same as son preference: it’s one thing to prefer a boy the way that one prefers chicken over steak and quite another to deliberately test for and abort girl fetuses. So while there may be conceptual similarities, this preference has not yet led American couples to pursue boys with the same vigor seen elsewhere.
But will new technologies change American sensibilities? Sex determination largely occurs via ultrasound at around 16 weeks, which is well into a pregnancy; only the most determined couples are likely to abort solely on the basis of sex at this stage. But new technologies such as non-invasive prenatal diagnosis, in which fetal sex can be detected as early as five weeks through a maternal blood test, may make sex determination and the possibility of terminating on the basis of sex easier – conceptually, emotionally, and physically. Might this technological shift turn Americans’ preference for sons into a full-blown son preference?