Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl

10281923Nonfiction — print. Public Affairs, 2011. 316 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” Hvistendahl turns a critical eye to practice of sex selection as people around the world are tilting the sex ratio from a normal 105 boys for every 100 girls to a staggering 120 to 163 boys for every 100 girls. It’s not just China and India that are selecting boys over girls but countries in Eastern Europe and the United States are selecting one sex over the other.

“It also does not bode well for places like Afghanistan or the Middle East, where couples have a long-standing preference for boys and fertility is, at least for now, still high. If access to abortion improves and the birth rate falls in the Middle Eat, some scholars believe it will be the next region to develop a gender imbalance.” (pg. 40)

Hvistendahl breaks this complex issue (and her book) into three parts: part one addresses the discovery of tilting sex ratios across time, part two traces how encouraging people to have only one child whether through forced sterilization or changing social norms became “A Great Idea”, and part three presents an apocalyptic world were women don’t exist. Except, in parts of the world, this apocalyptic world is already in existence and women are being trafficked across countries to become brides for men where women are in short supply.

So much of the world’s attention has focused on Asian countries where millions of women are said to be missing due to sex selection. But one of the things I love about Hvistendahl’s book is that she casts a wide net and focuses on how the problem has manifested itself in other countries. In contrast to Asian countries, Americans want girls under a fanciful idea that all little girls enjoy playing with dolls and wear dresses. She also explains how sex selection decisions by parents in South Korea and Taiwan effect the lives of poor families in Vietnam as their daughters leave (willingly and unwillingly) to become wives of those the country as well the effect it may have on nationalism.

Hvistendahl approaches the role abortion has played with this issue with a delicate hand, not outright demanding that abortion be outlawed but also not shying away from the role abortion has played in the issue. It’s clear to see why women’s rights and feminist groups, particularly those that are pro-choice,  have shied away from addressing sex selection based on Hvistendahl’s book.

The book wasn’t exactly what I needed for my research paper on gender and development but it still proved to be an absolutely fascinating read. So glad I decided to pick it up.


  1. I started this one during the summer, but then I had some major life changes and was too stressed to read it. I pledged to pick it up again as soon as my brain was able… and then I didn’t. Which is too bad, because the first half was fascinating. I agree — Hvistendahl does cast a wide the book, and I think it shows in how through it feels to read it. I’m hoping to go back and finish it soon.


    • I hope you are able to go back and read it, Kim. The book really is worth a read! I was very impressed in how well she manages her wide net; I was fearful this book would turn into a bashing of China and India.


    • The US sex selection problems were really interesting to me! She does mention that Asian-Americans still prefer boys to girls and keep their family sizes small despite how far removed they are from immigration. The part about selection in favor of girls isn’t until the end and Hvistendahl uses it as her conclusion. I wish she had provided more information.

      Anyways, I hope you pick up the book Jackie. It’s quite an interesting read.


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