‘The Ugliest Form of Misogyny’: Sex-Selective Abortions and the War on Baby Girls

Documentary shown at the U.N. highlights the issue of ‘gendercide.’

Reggie Littlejohn testifies at the emergency congressional hearing regarding Chen Guangcheng of May 3, 2012, before the Congressional Executive Commission on China.
Reggie Littlejohn testifies at the emergency congressional hearing regarding Chen Guangcheng of May 3, 2012, before the Congressional Executive Commission on China. (photo: Women't Rights Without Frontiers)

NEW YORK — Every year in India and China, more baby girls are killed by abortion and infanticide than are born in the United States. According to a documentary called It’s a Girl, shown at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York last month, the U.N. has estimated that 200 million girls are missing worldwide due to sex-selective abortion and infanticide.

Reggie Littlejohn, a litigation lawyer who founded the California-based Women’s Rights Without Frontiers (WRWF), addressed the U.N. commission, whose theme was violence against women and girls, and showed the award-winning documentary to highlight “gendercide”— the systemic and deliberate killing of baby girls in cultures that favor males.

The film focuses on Asia, and, in one of the most chilling scenes in its trailer, a smiling Indian woman describes how she would “just strangle [a baby girl] as soon as it was born.” She takes the film crew to a burial mound beside a field where she laughs, while explaining that, “since we were not having any male children, I killed eight girl children.”

Littlejohn’s focus is China, where the Ministry of Health reported this month that more than 336 million abortions have been carried out since the country instituted its controversial one-child policy. Well over half of those abortions have been carried out on baby girls because of a preference for baby boys, and China’s children now have the most skewed sex ratio in the world.

In 2009, the British Medical Journal published a study of China’s national intercensus data from a 2005 survey (the most recent detailed data available) and found a high sex ratio across all areas, with 126 baby boys born for every 100 baby girls under age 4 in rural areas. Six provinces had sex ratios greater than 130 for first births to mothers; for second births, the ratio was higher than 160 in nine provinces (in rural areas of China, a second child generally has been allowed five years after the first child’s birth, but in some areas this is permitted only when the firstborn baby was a girl).

Virtually all of this sex imbalance is attributed to sex-selective abortion, according to the study, although infanticide of baby girls is well documented as well.

“Although some imaginative and extreme solutions have been posited,” the BMJ study authors noted, “nothing can be done now to prevent this imminent generation of excess men.”

“There are 37 million more men than women living in China today,” Littlejohn told the U.N. gathering in New York. “This gender imbalance drives human trafficking and sexual slavery. And China has the highest female suicide rate of any country in the world. This is the true war against women.”

China is already a destination for thousands of young girls who are trafficked into prostitution or provided as “bride sales” to men seeking to purchase wives from Laos, Burma, Vietnam and Russia and other countries that border China. And, last month, the humanitarian news service of the U.N., IRIN, reported that bride trafficking from countries that do not border China looks set to grow as well, as new cases from Cambodia confirm.

“The numbers of identified cases are still small, but this number could rise, given the social demographics in play,” said Lisa Rende-Taylor, chief technical adviser for the U.N. Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking.


Changing the Policy

China’s birth-control regime is the obvious culprit for the country’s gendercide. The trend to kill girls is strongest where birth-control regulation is most brutally enforced.

As China’s new government recently rolled its Family Planning Commission into its national Health Ministry, commentators have remarked that it at last appears to be undoing the one-child policy, in light of the demographic fallout it created, including the sex ratio, disintegrating family structure, labor shortages and a rapidly aging population without a sufficiently large young cohort to support it.

“We need to find a new family-planning policy to fit with the times,” said Huang Jiefu, a former vice minister at the Health Ministry, after seeing the Family Planning Commission dissolved into the Health Ministry.

Wang Feng, a population expert and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, told The Wall Street Journal that the new government was winding down the old birth-control policy, but doing it without admitting so “as a measure to save face and a recognition that they can’t announce all the change in one day.”

“The National Population and Family Planning Commission was created for a single mandate of controlling population growth, and now that they no longer have that, those powers have been dissolved,” said Wang. “They know they cannot dismantle everything all at once. It is going to take some time.”

Whatever time they take is not fast enough for activist Littlejohn, who has heard enough false calls for “the end” of China’s population-control policy to make her skeptical.

“We call upon China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, immediately to abandon all coercive population control and to end this bloody reign of terror,” she said at the recent U.N. gathering.

In India, too, the government’s de facto two-child policy is an undercurrent for gendercide. One study, published in The Lancet, found that as many as 12 million baby girls have been aborted in the past three decades because of their sex. Another study, published in 2011 by Global Public Health, found women are pressured into the government’s sterilization camps after the birth of a son.


International Problem

But population-control programs do not account entirely for sex ratios. Neither does poverty. Poor African and South American countries don’t suffer the same abuse through sex-selective abortions. And a 2011 study from Delhi, published in The Lancet, surprised the researchers, who found that Indian women with higher incomes and education levels were far more likely to abort daughters than poorer women, especially in a second pregnancy where the first baby was a daughter.

And the problem is not limited to India and China. Abortion facilities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have all been found by undercover researchers to be routinely offering sex-selective abortion.

Steven Mosher, president of the Virginia-based Population Research Institute, called it the “ugliest form of misogyny” when he testified before the Kansas Senate Health Committee in February on state Senate Bill 141 — legislation to ban sex-selective abortions in the state. He said nine out of 10 Americans oppose sex-selective abortions but that it is hardly uncommon in the United States, where there are large immigrant populations from countries where a bias exists against girl children.

On March 25, a committee report recommended that the bill be heard by the Kansas Senate’s Committee on Federal and State Affairs instead.

Last May, the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA), which the Obama administration opposed on the grounds that the government should not interfere in “private family matters.”

Littlejohn scoffed at the federal political footballing of the issue. “Are they really for women’s rights?” she asked. “Or do they have a different agenda?”

In Canada last month, a bill to ban sex-selective abortions was dismissed as non-votable by a parliamentary subcommittee, triggering a major political controversy within the governing Conservative Party. Even though the bill was introduced by back-bench Conservative Member of Parliament Mark Warawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper instructed his party to join with opposition parties in derailing any debate of the proposed ban.

During his tenure as prime minister, Harper has promised repeatedly not to allow any change to Canada’s status quo on abortion, which places no legal restriction on abortion access up to the time of birth.

But some other government MPs subsequently joined with Warawa, objecting publicly to the stifling of debate of the bill to ban sex-selective abortions. And a recent poll found overwhelming opposition among Canadians to the practice, with 87% of respondents stating that they were always or sometimes opposed, compared to only 5% who expressed support.


Saving Baby Girls

Women's Rights Without Frontiers has a program to save the lives of Chinese girls by giving stipends to mothers who are fleeing forced abortion or choosing not to kill their baby girls. The organization’s website includes a page where donors can send a stipend to a Chinese mother to help save a baby girl.

Recently, WRWF field workers found a young woman in a family of poor farmers who wanted to abandon a baby girl in a field and try for a son. The woman’s husband and mother-in-law were especially pressuring her to let her daughter die.

“The most dangerous time for a baby girl is from when she’s about 4 to 5 months old in utero up to about 4 or 5 months old after birth,” Littlejohn said. “That’s when babies start developing their personalities and smiling and charming people.”

In the case of the infant girl, WRWF offered the woman a monthly stipend to help her keep her baby, and today her father and grandmother, the greatest advocates of murdering her, have changed their minds.

“Everyone has just fallen in love with her now,” said Littlejohn. It is, she added, “the story of how a little money can go a long way.” 

And it is the story of how hearts can be softened, and entire cultures changed, when the gift of a baby is accepted.

Register correspondent Celeste McGovern writes from Scotland.