Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men
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Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  699 ratings  ·  163 reviews
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

A Slate Best Book of 2011

A Discover Magazine Best Book of 2011

Lianyungang, a booming port city, has China's most extreme gender ratio for children under four: 163 boys for every 100 girls. These numbers don't seem terribly grim, but in ten years, the skewed sex ratio will pose a colossal challenge. By the time those children reach adulthood,...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 7th 2011 by PublicAffairs
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This book brought a very interesting, very troubling problem to light, but I had some major problems with it. First of all, I felt like Hvistendahl spent a huge amount of time trying to say that cultural practices and gender preference in Asian countries (mostly--some eastern European countries as well, she made that point very clear) was NOT the overall cause of skewed gender ratios, that instead technological advancements and the imposition of western population controls were the cause. Howeve...more
This book is making me stabby! Every few pages I have to set it down and make some out-loud remarks about the whole f-ed up situation and how it got that way. The fact that I'm usually alone probably makes me look a little crazy, but at least I haven't been reading in public!

A few quotes(to explain the stabbiness):

"Between January 1981, shortly after the [one-child] policy was introduced, and December 1986, Chinese women underwent 67 million abortions." (p.147)

"Mao Zedong once said that women ho...more
Hvistendahl is a good journalist who vividly paints the whole sordid backstory of Western complicity in Asian sex selection practices (usually abortion, and usually coerced). She also takes theorists to task for their portrayal of sex selection as an exclusively Asian practice that has to do with Asian culture. When the same problem is happening in places as far flung as Albania and Georgia (the country), something other than "local customs" has to be the culprit. The pattern that emerges is a d...more
160 million -- that's how many missing women there are in Asia due to sex-selection abortion. This book was fascinating to read, though quite flawed in some of its premises and conclusions.

Interestingly enough, the phenomenon is not happening in most Asian countries when a couple has their first child -- the first children ratios are largely normal. It's when a second child is born that a family decides that "this time, we want a boy." (p. 43). Falling birthrates in all of these countries mean m...more
I wanted to like this more than I did. On the one hand, Hvistendahl identifies a startling phenomenon, widespread sex-selective abortion, that raises a host of troubling ethical and practical issues. She is to be credited for bringing these issues to light.

But I found her analysis of the origins of the problem a bit simplistic, discounting cultural preferences for male children and focusing instead on technological changes and external pressures to lower overall fertility. They're all part of th...more
Hayley DeRoche
Good up until the last 15 pages when suddenly it's all OH BTW IVF IS ALLOWING RICH YUPPIES TO CHOOSE GIRLS OH NO. Yes, this is a problem, I'm not denying that. But IVF is a legitimate fix to a legitimate medical problem, and it kind of glosses the fuck over that. People using it in ethically dubious ways (ie, for sex selection due to social preference rather than genetic reasons) could ruin it for everyone dammit. Stop it, people. Stop. (Also, as someone who went through IVF, I was never offered...more
Fascinating examination of sex selection, abortion and family size. Hvistendahl does a good job in poking a flashlight into the different, murky corners of the issue, thought there aren't any obvious answers. I was taught, like a good geographer, the solid old model of demographic transition:


...and the teacher or professor occasionally adding on that squiggly line at the bottom right as an aside. Now, with most of the world well over into the right half of the graph, it looks like we might need...more
Have you thought about gender ratios? Untampered with, the gender ratio tends to be 105:100; 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Eventually, that ratio tends to even out since boys are more likely to meet untimely deaths. Nature has it all figured out.

Now, in many developing countries, that ratio is heavily skewed toward boys. In one province in China, the ratio is 163:100. Most cultures favor male children. Where do the missing girls go? It's true that many are left exposed to the elements t...more
I had heard about families selecting for male babies in India and China, but this book turned out to be more informative and eye-opening than I expected, not just about the problem of societies with more men than women, but population control in general. It’s well known now that in Asia people abuse the new medical technologies to screen for sons. Much has been duly said about sexism and cultural biases for having sons. What is less known is how and why this cultural bias was allowed to be pract...more
This was an excellent and very eye-opening book. I was aware of the gender imbalance in China, but I had no idea how extensive it is throughout the world – in India, Eastern Europe, and other places. Over 160 million women are now missing in Asia alone (greater than the whole female population of United States), and the instability that this is going to cause (and is already causing) is extreme. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this book, besides reading about women being forced to abort and...more
This book very neatly summarizes a problem that most people are completely unaware even exists. Namely, that sex-selective abortion in Asia has taken enough girls out of the population to skew the global sex ration at birth from its usual 105 boys to 100 girls to nearer 107::100.

Hvistendahl handles the subject in a way that is carefully not hysterical, tracing each step along the path that has taken regions of China and India to the kind of sex at birth ratios that have now become a global imba...more
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dhruvi Chauhan
Unnatural Selection was eye-opening and completely heart breaking. It is true that there are a lot of issues in this world that people don't really want to face, especially when the topic is a global concern. But I think reading a book like this can help fight that despicable stigma that I sometimes see in my own home, community, and high school.
What this book is about...is a consequence of years of gender discrimination. In a world ruled by men, populated overwhelmingly by men alone, women woul...more
This is a fascinating, well-written, and dare I say "must-read" book. There are 160 million Asian women missing, as Hvistendahl puts it. This is more women than live in the entire United States. The culprit, she argues, is sex-selective abortion.

She documents how as technologies such as ultrasound made their way into places like China, South Korea, and India people were able to choose to abort a baby if they did not want the gender. To put it more bluntly, mostly they wanted boys so if it was a...more
Jeff Scott
Mara Hvistenfahl makes the claim, resting on cultural history and western technology, that there are millions of women missing from the world because of abortion and sex selection.

I'm not convinced that selective abortion is the culprit here. Although the author points out ultrasounds are cheap, abortions are not. One could afford a cheap ultrasound, but a cheap abortion often kills. That aspect isn't addressed.

The book goes on to connect historical cultural trends, population control efforts,...more
This is a thoroughly researched, well-written expose on the current preponderance of males in some Asian and Eastern European countries. The author ties this current trend to the hysteria in the West in the late 1960s and 1970s over overpopulation, and to the ways in which international organizations, funded by the West, interfered in the fertility of Asian countries, leading to some of this imbalance. The book is so well-laid out, it felt as though I were following a criminal case, with each bi...more
I was very excited to read this book, but very disappointed. The topic is very important, but the research is shoddy, to say the least. Full of unsupported assertions. Things like labeling concerns about overpopulation "overpopulation hysteria." Whose to say that those concerns were not (and are not) well-founded, just because the author say its hysterical? Attempts to turn a challenging social situation into a big Western conspiracy really do not hold water. And much of what she hypes into her...more
Alex Konieczny
I'll giver it to Mara Hvistendahl, this is a well researched book. It is thoroughly interesting. It is well written. The problem of sex selection, while not nearly fleshed out to the extent I would have liked her to, is a valid concern. However Hvistendahl doesn't make a case for it being the "West's" fault that other countries abort their girls. Just because we give them the tools doesn't mean we get the blame. Medical companies and governments wish to promote population control, an endeavor th...more
This book offers a wealth of information on the over-population and demographics debate since the 1950's. Hvistendahl tears apart the notion that sex-selected abortions in Asia are simply an ugly cultural phenomenon, and gives objective, evidence based arguments to the contrary. The truth is that the West has had a lot to do with one-child policy enforcement, sex-selected abortions and the resulting gender imbalance found in some Asian countries today.

Unnatural selection will stay on my book she...more
Interesting nonfiction book all about the consequences of the practice in certain countries (China, India, and others) of choosing boys over girls by various means (sex-selective abortion, infanticide, etc.). Goes into the demographic consequences in-depth, and there were a lot of considerations I did not think of or expect. For example, back when ultrasound machines were newer and still mainly only available to middle-class and wealthier people, it became the practice in wealthier countries suc...more
Kindle quotes:

Back then women were so proud to own refrigerators that they crocheted dust covers for them and placed the appliances in the living room. (Then too most Chinese apartments had kitchens so small that refrigerators did not fit anywhere else.) - location 43

The ancient Greeks believed that when it came to procreation men’s testicles had specific roles: the left testicle produced girls, while the right one yielded boys. Aristotle took this to its logical but painful conclusion, teaching...more
As someone takes gender issues very seriously, this book has greatly expanded my view on sex selective abortion and the effects of imbalance sex ratio on women's welfare.
Economists wrongly assumed that scarcity of females due to sex selective abortion would make females very valuable. Despite the economic value of females in terms of commodity has increased (females brought and sold as brides, prostitution, etc...), females' status has not. On the contrary, girls are being exploited evident by...more
I've read this book multiple times. I honestly think it should be required reading. Even people who are active and involved on feminist issues don't usually realize just how far the practice of sex selection has spread, nor the part the West played in it. This book is a really well-written introduction. It goes over the history of sex selection, the countries it has spread to, the consequences not just for the few women left but for the "surplus men", the way the issue has been wilfully ignored,...more
Elaine Nelson
I don't remember exactly what bugged me about this book (since I read it several months ago), but what I do remember is (a) author had some sort of hobby-horse (abortion, I think?) and (b) I found myself reading the book about the history of Superman instead. And I'm not really into Superman.
Enlightening book on a subject that does not receive much attention. This book goes beyond political views of choice to expose the truly horrific global epidemic of sex selective abortion.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. It's a really interesting and important topic that is often overlooked, and I was really excited when I read an early review of it. That being said, this book is a mess. It's so horribly organized that despite my interest, it took me weeks to read (I am not a slow reader). The entire second part of this book was a waste of words. And the worst part is Hvistendahl never follows up on anything. She argues that missing girls is a result of sex selective abo...more
Naomi Young
A disturbing and ultimately frustrating book. The person who believes in the essential teachings of Humanae Vitae will see them validated in these pages, somewhat against the author's will. It's also an excellent, if chilling, study of good intentions gone awry. How could anyone object to preventing the devastation of overpopulation? Who wouldn't want to know whether the child she was carrying had a fatal or damaging condition?

Hvistendahl describes how anti-Communism and Malthusian population p...more
Robert E.  Kennedy Library
Imagine if every woman in America disappeared tomorrow. That would be 160 million people gone, off the face of the earth, in a blink of an eye. That is how many girls have disappeared from the world because of sex selection abortion and a world that favors males over females. This powerful book highlights the cultural reasons why families choose to abort their female fetuses and what affect that has on those countries, their neighbors and the rest of the world.

This should be read by all, but it...more
We all know about the gender imbalance in Asia along with declining fertility rates in a lot of first world countries. What is interesting is that the ability for gender selection was introduced from the West to the East initially as a means of population control. What this book does is give background on how things such as the "One-child" policy in China was established and factors in declining birthrates throughout the globe.

It is a fascinating look into our medical history and development an...more
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Mara Hvistendahl is an award-winning writer and journalist specialized in the intersection of science, culture, and policy. A correspondent for Science magazine, she has also written for Harper’s, Scientific American, Popular Science, The Financial Times, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. Proficient in both Spanish and Chinese, she has spent half of the past decade in China, where she...more
More about Mara Hvistendahl...
And The City Swallowed Them Los Angeles Review of Books - Digital Editions: China Stories (Issue #10)

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