Sex Selection Bans and Orphanhood

When a woman aborts based on the sex of the fetus, it is called a “sex selective abortion.” While the phenomenon exists in the United States, it is notable for its prevalence in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe where there is a preference for sons. In those regions, sex selective abortion has dropped the ratio of girl babies to boy babies from the usual rate of 100:95 (for every 100 boy babies, 95 girl babies are born) to as low as 100:86.

Governments aren’t ignoring the issue. The Indian and Chinese governments have enacted bans on prenatal sex testing.

But here’s what’s fascinating about sex selective abortion and the related bans. Sex selective abortion took hold as access to sex-identifying technologies (think ultrasound) increased. Without these technologies, women carried babies to term whether it was male or female, and then we ran into problems associated with “unwanted girls”… high rates of abandonment, contributing to today’s orphan crisis, and infanticide.

Traditionally, India and China have topped the list of the worst rates of female infanticide and abandoned girls. In the early 2000s, most of China’s orphanages were filled with girls.[1] Today, the sex ratio seems to be evening out, with equal numbers of girls and boys entering orphanages.[2] I wonder what the numbers look like in India.

Studies show that greater access to abortion means less infanticide.[3] This must hold true for orphanhood as well – if an “unwanted girl” isn’t born, she can’t be condemned to an orphanage.

There’s no doubt that where selective sex abortion allows sex inequality to thrive we need to do something to eliminate it. It remains to be seen whether bans on prenatal sex testing are a good first step. But in the mean time, it’s worth exploring the link between selective sex abortion and the orphan crisis.

Special thanks to Prof. Sital Kalantry, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School for presenting her approach on how to evaluate the laws banning sex selection in the US and India using a contextual feminist framework.

[1] “The mystery of China’s orphans” by Beth Nonte Russell, 2/1/2007, at

[2] “The Changing Face of China’s Orphans” by Amy Eldridge, 1/14/2013, at

[3] “Does Abortion Cause Infanticide?” by Jay Livingston, PhD, 5/19/2013, at

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