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Is Curbing Women's Rights the Path to Gender Equality?

Posted: 07/13/11 08:19 PM ET

We can no longer afford to ignore the growing use of technology to select for boys and against girls in Asia and elsewhere. One hundred sixty million girls never born, testosterone-fueled societies and a future of seven brides for seventy brothers is indeed cause for alarm. Mara Hvistendahl's new book, Unnatural Selection, is shining long-overdue light on this problem. But, as usual, with complex social concerns -- some readers twist the lessons this excellent volume imparts to suit their own agendas. It may be a new take on an old issue but the foregone conclusion is the same: if there's a problem, let's take away women's rights to fix it. Is it any wonder pregnant women are reluctant to bring girls into a world where the first "solution" to every ill is to circumscribe our autonomy?

As Ms. Hvistendahl reports, sex selective practices, via abortion or other means, correlate to economic development. Sadly, the more resources women in son-adoring societies have, the more likely they won't carry a female to term. Further, as couples have fewer children, they also select for sex more frequently. When you only have one or two genetic replacements in the cue, producing a child that will keep property in the family becomes more essential.

When Westerners did this -- and let's not kid ourselves, skewed birth ratios prove we still do -- we called this "an heir and a spare." It made sense to us. The logic in this is based on the assumed superiority of male children. Boys are perceived as better not only for who they are but for what they will become: protectors of honor, keepers of surname, and best chances for familial upward mobility. Even now, in the United States, the desire for at least one son is couched in the euphemism of "family balancing," as if household stability rests on whether the toilet seat stays up or down.

Snakes, snails and puppy dog tails aside, boys are deemed more valuable than girls the world over. Or, more accurately, males are regarded of greater worth than females. Proof that sex discrimination is still very much with us, and honors no national or regional borders, abounds:

In Japan and South Korea men still earn 30% more than their equally industrious female colleagues. But, resist the temptation to add this to an Asia-only problem pile. Here at home, we offer a 19% annual bonus for possessing a penis. Men dominate in politics, business, medicine, law and engineering. If a profession promises good pay and prestige, you're likely to find men doing it. Decades of this inequity, and our general reluctance to pass policies to address it, mean women are pushed below the poverty line early and often.

Moreover, the fact that, as a recent Harris poll attests, American parents favor sons over daughters today to the same degree our grandparents did in 1941 deserves serious consideration. Moreover, men are more likely than women to report a sex preference. Reading these results, it would seem that favoring sons is nothing new. The change here is smaller family size and with it increased pressure to get it "right" the first or perhaps second time.

And yet some are not content to just leave it at economic, political and social inequity. As authors who wield news of sex selection as an excuse to curb the reproductive rights of women prove, females aren't afforded parity even with regard to the integrity of our bodies. Given all this, perhaps what's truly remarkable is that most women granted daughters happily raise them.

Addressing the growing trend to devalue girls by further devaluing the rights of their mothers makes about as much sense as fighting terrorism with torture. And yes, we do this too -- but it's not effective in either situation.

Opponents of reproductive rights insist we address how women devalue and seek to eliminate would-be girls. We agree. But we'd add that men, not just women, could stand some attitude adjustment.

We also share their belief that the individual, communal, national and global implications of systematically choosing not to bring girls into the world are horrendous. But, only by understanding the desire behind sex selective efforts, whether through abortion, sperm sorting, or IVF with embryo-selection, can we ever hope to make a dent in these practices. That restricting our already circumscribed rights is the way to get women to want raise more women is ludicrous. Tackling the real gender inequality and stereotypes that lead to sex selection, including infringements on women's choices, is the only way to have people regard potential daughters with the joy and expectation too many reserve only for sons.