Sex-Selective Abortions in China Have Produced 32 Million Extra Boys

By Eliza Strickland | April 13, 2009 8:41 am

Chinese boysThe preference for sons in traditional Chinese families has led to a vast gender disparity in China: A study has found that there are currently 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20. While Chinese officials have acknowledged that the country’s “one-child” policy has led to a gender imbalance, the new study offers the first hard data on the extent of the disparity. The study included nearly five million people under the age of 20 and covered every county in China. It found that overall ratios of boys were high everywhere, but were most striking among the younger age group of 1-4 years, and in rural areas, where it peaked at 126 boys for every 100 girls [The Wall Street Journal blog].

With the greatest imbalance occurring with very young children, the researchers say that China will be grappling with the problem for 20 years. The imbalance is expected to steadily worsen among people of childbearing age over the next two decades and could trigger a slew of social problems…. “If you’ve got highly sexed young men, there is a concern that they will all get together and, with high levels of testosterone, there may be a real risk, that they will go out and commit crimes” [AP], says study coauthor Therese Hesketh.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, attributed the imbalance almost entirely to couples’ decisions to abort female fetuses. The trend toward more male than female children intensified steadily after 1986, they said, as ultrasound tests and abortion became more available. “Sex-selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males,” the paper said [The New York Times]. Although tests to determine the fetus’s gender for non-medical reasons are officially banned, the rule is largely ignored.

The Chinese government instituted strict birth control policies in the 1970s to prevent runaway population growth, but the one-child policy clashed with Chinese families’ traditional preference for a male heir. In some provinces, a second child is permitted if the first is a girl or if parents are experiencing “hardship” [AFP]. But among those second births the proportion of boys is even higher than average as families desperately pursue their last chance for a son. Among second births, there are 143 males to 100 female births.

Related Content:
80beats: Finch Mothers Can Subconsciously Control the Gender of Their Little Ones
DISCOVER: A Good Reason for Sex looks at the evolution of gender
DISCOVER: The Biology of Sex Ratios asks if humans can unconsciously influence the sex of their offspring

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Uncle Al

    Polyandry, homosexuality, chemical or physical castration (e.g., the Forbidden City), conventional land war. 300 millon shared rural dead sum to a marvenous demographic stop-gap for China and India together. The trick is to avoid the merely wounded.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Uncle Al, I’ve asked you to stay more on-topic a few times, and I see you’re not doing that. Your comments are far too often offensive and/or disruptive of and irrelevant to conversations on the site. I’m now banning you from commenting on the DISCOVER blogs.

    Uncle Al’s previous comments will remain, but subsequent ones will be barred.

  • jessy

    i think it should be ok to have a kid and not have the baby adopted or have an abortion. The kid should have a good life like any normal kid they all deserve a life,they should not be KILLED for something the mom did it wasn’t their fault… the mom should be punished but not by KILLING their baby they might just go get pregnent again..

  • maximillian

    lap cheung party!

  • Brian Schmidt

    My free market inclination has been that gender selection will benefit girls now that they’re more scarce. In ten years we’ll start finding out whether that’s true.

  • Jen Hawse

    Could this type of sex selection lead to a culture that more readily embraces homosexuality as there are simply not enough females to couple with? Besides prevalent violence as the article mentioned, what other consequences could this ban produce? A larger military? Higher suicide rates from loneliness and depression?

    I’d like to look towards the positive, and appreciate Brian’s comment that women may gain from this venture, but in terms of the macro society any obtrusive imbalance will enviably hinder instead of help.

  • Grant H

    “Jen Hawse Says:
    April 13th, 2009 at 9:19 pm
    Could this type of sex selection lead to a culture that more readily embraces homosexuality as there are simply not enough females to couple with?”

    I don’t think so. There will still be the requirement of sexual attraction. Without the chemical disposition, wouldn’t a guy just not be attracted to another guy? (I’m no expert, lots of guys being single and next to no unmarried females just doesn’t seem a likely catalyst to me).

    “Higher suicide rates from loneliness and depression?”

    I think this will sadly prove to be true.

    Perhaps, with the current situation, some government campaigns could help. Ads on TV, in newspaper, etc. with catchy phrases. In New Zealand we’ve had media stuffing things down our collective throats covering safety belts, speeding (on the road), drink driving, dangers of mains electricity, kids playing with matches, smoking, among other stuff. There’s been various levels of success, overall, it’s been a good thing to do. Perhaps there could be media presentations touting the equal value of sons and daughters. A real push by the government to change the collective paradigm.
    Maybe there already is something like that going on. I reckon it could possibly help. But then again, there are probably more clever minds, actually involved and in China, than mine working on this issue.

  • Frank Rossi

    What do you do with 300 million amped, poor,disenfranchised adolecents in a society defined by governmental control?

    I think that Africa could make the Sudetenland look like a hamlet.

  • Grant H

    Just for interest value, this site is available from behind The Firewall. Residents of China can reach this page, according to:

  • Georgia

    I think that abortion based on gender is disgusting.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Zeeburg, Uncle Al’s comment dealt with the consequences of China’s population policy. The fact it offends you has nothing to do with its relevance.

  • Jenita

    The author mentions that an excess of males could lead to higher crimes. I think this could lead to more crimes against females like rape or domestic violence as men who are able to acquire a female will not let the woman have any personal freedom to leave if in an abusive relationship resulting in even more female oppression.

  • Tom ‘Connell

    FWIW, I completely agree with Alan Kellogg’c comment. That many people find the truth offensive doesn’t negate it. Uncle Al simply has a flair for annoying the complacent.

  • Confucius

    32 million young males just hanging around in China with no chance of a mate?
    Confucius says “He who cannot make love makes war.”

    War is coming.

  • Dee

    To the Discover Web Editor Amos Zeeberg:

    This is a science blog. By banning Uncle Al’s logical progression of potential consequences, you are imposing your own PC filter on the discussion. You clearly have no science background.

    I am not offended by Uncle Al’s deductive ponderings, but I am tremendously offended that a politically correct traffic cop is empowered to silence non profane contributions.

    You must be quite young. The fallout from imposing your thought police methods will shape your future world.

  • JackDonlan

    “I think that abortion based on gender is disgusting.”
    True, of course. But it is the “choice” of parents.

    I have a better one
    abortion is disgusting

    China will become violent with all these boys. They will be shipped off to the military.

  • Michael

    Tell you what else, there’ll be a lot of Chinese young men touring other countries – especially Asian – seeking wives in the future. This has happened in Japan (especially the rural areas) and has been portended for S. Korea where the same gender imbalance prevails (and for the same reasons).

  • Linda T. Stuteville

    I wonder if anyone has informed the Chinese (and while we’re at it, let’s include India, too) that in order to have sons you have to have daughters because in order to have a human baby it must gestate for nine months in a mother’s womb. And in order to have mothers to gestate said sons, you must have baby girls who will grow up to be mothers to produce the sons. This was a fact of life that I learned when I was still in grade school.

    I would like to think that a highly educated society as China know that.

    Whether or not this excess of boys to girls will result in more war, rape, crime and sexual assault is something I’m not qualified to answer. But I might be able to predict that if this trend continues, China may cease to be the world’s largest nation, population wise. (And while we’re at it, let’s again throw in India, too; it’s the world’s second largest population, and they are aborting baby girls and facing the same problem as China)

    China’s collective misogyny might very well reduce the number of Chinese!

  • Azalea

    You can’t be pro-choice and be against sex selective abortions. You can personally find them disgusting without wishing legislation to prevent it or shaming those who engage in it. The ONLY difference between a typical first trimester abortion and a “sex selection” abortion is that you KNOW the gender of the fetus you are aborting. Naturally there are more females than males conceived anyway because there are typically more X chromosed sperm than Y chromosomed sperm in any sample of semen so there are and always will be more females being aborted.

  • Sammi

    No, there are more boys born than girls in nature. About 105 boys for evey 100 girls.
    But, boy infants and children are more likely to have problems and die, so at the age of around 20, there are an on average 102 boys for every 100 girls. Now at old age, men die earlier so it swings the other way around, more women than men.

  • Linda T. Stuteville

    It’s true, Sammi.

    But from what I have heard, in many areas of China a couple is permitted to have only one child, and everyone wants to have a boy, not a girl. (I’ve heard that there are some rural areas in China where this is not the case, but I’ve only gotten that by hearsay, so I could be wrong about that).

    If the pattern continues, population figures in China could drop drastically. Even if more boys are naturally born than girls, if girls are continually aborted more than boys, you’re going to get more boys than girls and consequently, at the most fertile age, there will be fewer girls to choose from, since so many have been aborted. there won’t be as many babies born in general — and of the smaller amount of babies, and if Chinese couples are still only allowed one child — well — figure it out.

  • Leo


    … couldn’t resist sorry. Abortion its wrong if you are healthy and it was a consensual act.

    BOOOO china !

  • Lauren

    Either abortion is legal or it’s illegal. You can’t say my abortion was legit but yours was immoral. The child is being killed either way. It’s funny how women don’t want to be judged for their choices but are so willing to turn around and judge another woman.

  • maison a vendre montreal

    I was very surprised when I found this article. Thank you for this informative content and expressing your views. This is very good quality work.

  • Wayne Holmen

    We would like to thank you once more for the lovely ideas you offered Jesse when preparing her post-graduate research in addition to, most importantly, regarding providing many of the ideas in one blog post. In case we had known of your blog a year ago, we will have been kept from the unwanted measures we were choosing. Thank you very much.


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