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Unnatural Selection    by Mara Hvistendahl order for
Unnatural Selection
by Mara Hvistendahl
Order:  USA  Can
PublicAffairs, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

Beijing-based writer Mara Hvistendahl visited nine countries and talked to mothers, doctors, demographers, trafficked women, mail-order brides and men doomed to bachelorhood as she did the research for this disturbing book.

The information she collected, along with other material, helped her piece together this troubling story about some of the staggering population imbalances that are facing a number of countries. Not only does she try to explain why a world without girls has become a reality in many cultures but also what the dire consequences well could be of such a dire situation.

Some of the current figures underscore the seriousness of the situation that was brought on by not only sex-selective abortion decisions but also sex determination technology.

The natural sex ratio at birth for humans is 105 boys for every 100 girls; anything else beyond a ratio of 107 is biologically impossible, scientists tell us. Yet in China a recent census found a sex ratio at birth of 118 boys to every 100 girls. Looking down the road two decades, this ratio, mostly the result of sex selection abortion and the country's one child policy, will mean that millions of Chinese men will be unable to find wives.

The situation isn't much better in neighboring countries. Thanks to a gender imbalance in India and South Korea, as well as other places, an estimated 160 million females are missing from Asia's population.

Thanks to Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, that in the 1970s raised the issue of the serious consequences of unfettered population growth and the corresponding actions of international groups and individual governments to curb that growth, the number of female births began to decline along with full term pregnancies in general in many countries.

Since in some cultures male babies were more valued than females, sex-selective abortion became quite common. The author points out that in Seoul, South Korea, in 1977, 2.75 abortions were performed for every birth. Obviously, not all of these were females but certainly a good portion of them probably were.

Not just poverty and government dictates explain this situation. Gender imbalance is spreading and becoming more common because it is closely tied to economic development as well. 'Countries where the sex ratio at birth has recently skewed also have rapidly decreasing fertility rates,' Hvistendahl explains. 'And a drop in births tends to go along with development.'

Not only does she explain why this female-male imbalance exists and how it came to be, but the author also suggests some possible future consequences of the situation. Already men seeking wives are seeking spouses in other countries and forced marriages and sexual trafficking are on the rise.

There may be more subtle changes as well, such as increased political unrest in some countries. 'In both China and India, nationalism is taking hold among restless young men, and the governments are eyeing the men uneasily,' writes Hvistendahl. Is this because of a rise of living standards or the exposure of political corruption? Perhaps. But that restlessness might also be caused in part by the inability to find a female companion or a spouse as well.

A provocative and unsettling book, Unnatural Selection is certainly worth reading and discussing. As the author points out, this is not just a dilemma that faces Asian countries. We are also seeing it much closer to home and the consequences could be just as serious.

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