Beyond Buoying the Boys

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The population health implications of sex-selective abortion

By Larkin Callaghan

Anyone paying attention to the election this past year—or, frankly, even those who tried to avoid it—has at least a superficial understanding of what the abortion rights argument looks like in the United States.

But the long-term population health outcomes of abortion are generally not considered as part of the argument. That’s because when a woman terminates a pregnancy in America, the decision is rarely made based on the sex of the fetus. However, in many developing and growing countries, that is at the crux of a woman’s decision—and the significant shift in gender representation is changing their population health status, and perhaps even the picture of the burden of disease. One of the countries in which this is most evident is China.

Interestingly, and likely unsurprisingly for those invested in a woman’s right to choose, we see that sex selection is itself a manifestation of the gender inequities in economic and social standing in many of these countries—not so different than many of the reasons cited by women in the U.S. seeking abortions. So while the outcomes of sex-selective abortion abroad may pose different problems, it should be acknowledged that the need for abortion is rooted in similar circumstances around the globe.

This issue is addressed by one of the few research studies to explore the ramifications of China’s one-child policy, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. China is a prime example of the increase in the male population due to women terminating pregnancies that were discovered to be female, a practice deemed illegal but nonetheless carried out widely.

The ratio of male to female live births in industrialized countries generally ranges from 1.03 to 1.07 (103,000 – 107,000 boys born for every 100,000 girls born). In China, since the inception of the one-child policy, the ratio has risen from 1.06 in 1979, to 1.11 in 1988, to 1.17 in 2001 (117,000 boys born for every 100,000 girls). Some regions show even higher numbers, with the Anhui, Guangdong, and Qinghai provinces reaching ratios as high as 1.3 (meaning that for every 130,000 boys born there are 100,000 girls born).

There are distinctions between urban and rural areas as well, since couples in rural provinces are generally allowed to have more than one child. The sex ratio comes in high at 1.13 for the first birth in urban regions, since one child is usually all a couple will be allowed. It peaks at 1.3 for the second birth (130,000 boys born for every 100,000 girls), which if couples are allowed to have, the preference is clearly male. This contrasts markedly with rural areas, in which the ratio for the first child is normal at 1.05 (105,000 boys for every 100,000 girls), indicating that sex-selection is not a huge issue since rural couples are allowed a second child. However, the ratio sharply increases at second births, reaching 1.23 (123,000 boys for every 100,000 girls).

(Recently, China has noted that their thinking may be changing in regards to the one-child policy, with the possibility of extending the two-child allowance to everyone.)

This has unsurprising impacts on the health of the population. Some of the more pressing concerns noted by researchers that they articulate as a result of there being fewer women to marry and partner with include mental illness and socially disruptive behavior issues in men. Recently, studies have begun to document these trends, underscoring the significant long-term consequences of this gender imbalance. One recent study showed that even after adjusting for age, education, and income level, unmarried men in China were more likely to have lower self-esteem, higher depression, higher aggression, and more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than married men—at statistically significant levels.

The findings of another study, comprised of interviews conducted with people in China born just before and just after the implementation of the one-child policy showed similar results. Researchers found that the policy itself had created a less trusting and less trustworthy population, who are more risk-averse and less competitive, more pessimistic, less conscientious and even more neurotic. The impact of anti-social behaviors in a predominantly male population seems to be shifting the mental health profile of the entire nation.

More concerning as a result of sex-selective abortion and a decrease in the number of women available for marriage is the increased in trafficked women, and the subsequent increase in the number of commercial sex workers. Researchers note that a broad range of high-risk sex behaviors are often demanded by the surplus male clients, increasing the incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. This alone has been noted as having a likely significant affect on the spread of HIV throughout China, posing a major national public health threat for the country.

The health implications aren’t limited to reproductive health and mental illness. If it is in fact accurate that most of the children living in China’s orphanages are girls, it is unclear how the future healthcare needs of these girls as they age into women will be handled and by whom, with a rapidly growing aging population already relying heavily on the significantly less populous younger generation.

Critics of abortion, sex-selective or not, often cite mental health issues and resulting regret as major reasons why women should not get abortions. So what about the health status—physical and mental—of the women who have these procedures?

Recently, public health researchers have worked to create the first body of scientific literature answering these very concerns. A group of University of California, San Francisco researchers at the group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health recently presented some of the findings of their longitudinal research known as the Turnaway Study. They found that women who were seeking abortions and who were denied were more likely to have slipped into poverty a year later, more likely to be on public assistance, and less likely to have a job. There was no correlation between abortion and drug use, or abortion and depression.

Abroad, given that sex-selective abortion is usually a procedure performed by private providers due to legal restrictions, tracking this kind of information is extremely difficult. And while this research was limited to the experiences of American women, the results showing decreases in economic status and increases in reliance on some form of public assistance, if available, certainly seem like potential outcomes in countries with worse statistics in terms of gender equality and economic growth.

Is there a solution? The gender imbalance, and therefore the changing prevalence of certain diseases, will not balance out unless sex-selective abortion is essentially made impossible, but it is imperative that the issue of sex-selective abortion not become a rallying cry to end the right to the procedure overall for women. As seen by the work done by researchers in China and the findings by UCSF researchers, the issues surrounding the choice to have an abortion, whether in the United States or abroad, are complex and inextricably linked to the economic and social circumstances of the women.

To tackle the burgeoning disease differences emerging from the sex-selective abortions, the work must begin by tackling the fundamental issues regarding the reasons why women seek these abortions in the first place.

Edited by Dana March. Additional research by Josh Brooks.

This article originally appeared on the2x2project.org, an online publication sponsored by the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. 2×2 aims to inform the health conversation through timely and effective communication of emerging public health science.

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