“Unnatural Selection” by Mara Hvistendahl

Jack is back–this time, with his first-ever five-star review! I can’t wait to read this one for myself.

Title: Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men
Author: Mara Hvistendahl
ISBN: 9781586488505
Pages: 336
Release date: June 2011
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Genre: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Rating: 5 out of 5

Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection examines the issue of sex-selective abortion. The book outlines how a combination of the increasing availability of abortions and ultrasound technology and a strong cultural and individual preference for boys has contributed to a staggering deficit of 160 million women and girls worldwide.

This book touches on many thorny topics that are often given little attention in the United States, where sex-selective abortion is rarely practiced. Should feminists object to sex selection, which is dramatically reducing the population of women in China and India, or should protecting abortion rights trump these concerns? Should parents have the “right” to know the gender of a fetus? These are questions without neat answers.

Hvistendahl’s book is divided into three parts. The first outlines how sex-selective abortions are changing the gender balance in certain countries. Part two describes the history of the population control movement, and how paternal colonialism has contributed to throwing off the gender balance. The final part describes the impact of a society where men outnumber women.

The third part of the book is easily the strongest for me, as it explores a question that I have often wondered about: What is the impact of having such a skewed gender dynamic in growing countries like China and India? The answers are diverse and frightening, and I consistently found myself reading long passages of the book aloud to Melody because they were simply unbelievable.

The chapter on “The Bride” began with the story of the arranged marriage between Cheng Ching-huang and Nguyen Thi Mai Chau, and was a heartbreaking example of how impersonal market forces react to the gender disparity.  Nguyen was a twenty year old Vietnamese girl who was working odd jobs near Ho Chi Minh City and sending what she could spare back to her family.

She was [working] at the coffee shop when her mother sent word that she was sick, summoning Nguyen back to their village. When the young woman arrived she found her mother in fine health but with a mind fixated on one thing:  it was time for her youngest daughter to really help the family. Nguyen knew what that meant. . . . But she was an obedient daughter, and she agreed to her mother’s plan. The next thing she knew, she was at a dreary Ho Chi Minh City airport hotel, clutching the bouquet of flowers the matchmaker had instructed her to buy (she wondered why she should be the one to give flowers but was too shy to ask) as she waited with other women for an evening flight from Taipei to land.

Finally the men arrived. The matchmaker introduced the couple, and then Nguyen stood before Cheng silently, her eyes averted, and waited. “So?” the matchmaker asked him after he had had a few minutes to stare. “Will you marry her?”

And like that, Nguyen found herself married to a Taiwanese businessman eleven years her senior.

The next chapter, “The Prostitute,” told the story of Lam, a young Vietnamese girl who was kidnapped at 16 and brought to China for sex trafficking. The chapter details her dramatic rescue from the inhuman conditions in the brothel and the escape back to Vietnam. But a successful return home was atypical of most young girls caught up in the sex trade, and in the following months she discovered she had contracted HIV during her time in China.

The skewed gender ratio also has a multitude of unintended consequences. As competition has increased, Chinese families must save small fortunes in order to attract a bride for their sons. This has contributed to the astronomical savings rate in China, and contributes to the demand for purchases of US debt. And as bachelors in India and China find themselves unable to secure a mate in their local communities, they increasingly are turning to bringing in brides from impoverished areas abroad, contributing to a skewed gender dynamic there as well:

The people who select for boys are not the same ones who have to watch their sons grow old alone.  Just as Globalization allows consumers to buy cheap goods without considering the toll those goods take on the workers who produce them, so too does it allow parents to ignore the impact of their actions by hiding away the unsavory aftermath of sex selective abortion…Wealthy parents in Taiwan and South Korea make decisions, while poor families in Vietnam feel their effects.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy Unnatural Selection from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

4 replies »

  1. What I’m truly curious about is if they are adjusting their behavior now that they know that sex selection has such dire consequences, or if they’re still barreling ahead at full speed – devaluing girls and counting on the fact that they will be able to buy them elsewhere. You would think at some point people would come to their sense and start valuing girls.


  2. Well, the impression I got was that the full impact of these decisions has not yet arrived. But the cultural momentum of favoring boys has not yet shifted and may still be expanding to other areas where sonograms are not yet widespread.


  3. Beginning of December, a program aired on ABC 20/20 about India’s deadly secret. It was about 40 million girls who have vanished. All aborted before they could take their first breath. Their crime was that they were girls. As you know the gender ratios is India are terribly skewed about 914 girls per 1,000 boys. In Punjab it is about 833 girls per1,000 boys. Unfortunately this happens amongst the privileged and the educated also. The only woman who has brought cases against her in-laws and husband is Dr Mitu Khurana. Please watch her story and sign her petition for justice. Please give those 40 million girls silenced forever, a voice. Please forward this to as many friends as possible.



    and here is the link to her website-

    After you sign the petition, there will be a request from the site for a donation. This donation is totally discretionary and does not in any way or form affect or benefit Dr Mitu Khurana. All she is asking for is your support (signing this petition) so that pressure can be put on the Indian authorities that the whole world is watching them in total disbelief as they make a young mother run around in vain for four years in search of justice


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