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

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  1,125 Ratings  ·  202 Reviews
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, their generation will have twenty-four million more men than women.The prognosis for China's ...more
ebook, 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
May 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 16, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
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
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
Aug 16, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 19, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Sep 21, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abortion
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
Aug 20, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reallyism
Disappointing book about an interesting issue. The author pretty much blames the west for pushing population control and technology on the countries in question. While I do think the first world's desire to control population in other parts of the world is detrimental, the author seriously downplays the impact the culture has on the desire for boys. Her solution seems to be to limit access and crack down on ultrasound technology, and punish sex-selective abortions. Awful conclusion, when she her ...more
Jul 03, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
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
While this book is worth reading, it has some fundamental weaknesses that make it dificult to take as definitive. The underlying theory is that sex selection has appeared in culturally disparate areas, increased at a similar rate, and all in a relatively short time frame. This cannot be explained solely by cultural factors. The link is Western techology and family planning programs. Hvistendahl lays responsibility on technology itself, rather than viewing it as an instrument through which underl ...more
Feb 07, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: actual-books
How to organize my thoughts on this....

Sex selective abortion is an issue. Choosing male fetuses over female fetuses is highly dangerous for us in the long run (but not just because men are uncontrollable hormonal monsters, like Hvistendahl seems to present - but seriously, Hvistendahl...? I'll come back to this). The West did indeed push population control on PoC throughout the East because we're fucking horrible racists with a terrible track record of colonialism.

But. But. Hvistendahl argues t
Sex selection, and its consequence of skewed population sex ratios, which has been sweeping major Asian countries over the past few decades, is an issue that simultaneously receives not enough attention in some quarters and then too much in others. Reproductive rights activists in the West have largely ignored the issue due to our individualist, choice-based framing around abortion rights; while anti-abortion religious zealots have been drawing attention to it only because of their broader agend ...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
I definitely credit BookReads Read Harder Challenge for steering me toward books I would probably never have otherwise read. A hat-tip must also go to the site Feminist Texican Reads, who created a recommended-reading list specifically of feminist books for each category--it's been so helpful with categories I don't know how, or am reluctant to, pick a book for.

So, how do I feel about this book? It was eye-opening, sometimes fascinating, often maddening, sometimes deeply upsetting (view spoiler
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,
Jun 10, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebook, non-fiction
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
Dhruvi Chauhan
May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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 a consequence of years of gender discrimination. In a world ruled by men, populated overwhelmingly by men alone, women woul
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 13, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
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
Oct 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended. Has won the following awards: Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, A Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2011, A Slate Best Book of 2011,
A Discover Magazine Best Book of 2011. Author is a science writer and some bits were too data-driven to hold my interest, which is why I chose to skim over those parts just to get the main ideas. Not really any new information I was not aware of, but just nice to see it in one place, well-documented, well-re
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.
Shoshana G
Nov 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This was super depressing and everyone should read it and then maybe we can figure out how to fix it.

I was totally right about this in college debate.
Jul 07, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jul 16, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 15, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow. My eyes were opened to a problem that I hadn't even known existed. But not only does this book describe the gender imbalance in the world today, but it also explains the causes throughout the past few decades in several countries and expounds upon current and potential effects. I had a lot to think about and a lot to learn. For example, I would have never known that the U.S. government (conservatives, no less) funded forced abortions and sterilizations in Asian countries because we were so ...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
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