Sex selection in the US

April 3, 2008

Abortion and sex selection in the United States. – By William Saletan – Slate Magazine

Sex selection of this magnitude has previously been documented in China, South Korea, and India, but not in the U.S. Here, the authors note, the usual economic and political rationales for sex selection—dowries, “patrilocal” marriage, China’s one-child policy, and dependence on your kids’ support in old age—don’t apply.

Which of these doesn’t apply?

  • Dowry is still widely required. In fact, it’s illegal in India, but not in the US. US Hindus (and to some extent Muslims) pay some of the highest dowries in the world, sometimes involving large amounts of real estate in India and the US. Even if we can hope that girls being born in the US today won’t have to pay dowries, remember that decisions about sex selection are being made by people who’ve most likely gotten married in the last few years.
  • Why is patrilocal marriage an incentive to sex selection?
  • I’m sure we could figure out someway the effects of the one-child policy extend to Chinese families in the US. Certainly there’s a social stigma amongst educated Indians associated with large families. “Ham do, hamare do,” and then “ham do hamara ek,” made a small family a sign of modernity and entry into the middle class.
  • I’d say dependence on one’s children is more of a concern than ever. In South Asian communities, even if it’s expected that women will work, most families feel that their daughters’ main duty will be to their own families (i.e. their husband and children). Sons, on the other hand, are presumed to have a duty to support their parents – perhaps even a stronger obligation than that they owe to their children.

The fact that recently married women – people likely to be at the peak of in-law and spousal harassment or abuse, whose parents are likely to still be suffering the effects of paying a large dowry or still in the process of getting younger sisters married – are at the center of decision making regarding sex selection means that many of these pressures will retain a strong influence. When women see their own lives as non-stop suffering, they’re likely to consider it cruel to bring a daughter into the world. The fact that many of these women are recently arrived means that they’re even less likely to perceive change on the horizon.

More negatively, there’s the fact that women in such situations see a son as their savior. First, it eases pressure from in-laws, especially if the first child is a son. Second, it’s percieved that he’ll be able to stand up for, protect, and provide for his mother in ways a daughter never could. Third, there’s the fact that he’ll eventually bring his mother a daughter-in-law, which will give the mother her turn to be on top.

One factor, not listed here although it is related to the social and legal pressures to have smaller families, is the fact that modern middle class brides are expected to work and contribute to the families income. Frequently, where “back home” in-laws would be vocal in condemnation of birth control, here they are likely to criticize a daughter-in-law for having children too soon, before the husband is established, a home purchased, green cards secured for the husband’s siblings, etc. (Ability to sponsor family members is partly dependent on income and the number of dependents already in the home.)

There’s a vicious cycle: families settled in the West insist on an educated – preferably “professional” – bride, but that means she will be older than many others on the marriage market. Grooms’ families use this fact to demand a higher dowry. The bride’s family goes into debt (on top of what they’ve probably already borrowed to pay for her education), and has no hope of ever recouping that investment from their daughter. The bahu goes to join her husband, and is expected to contribute her full salary for a few years. Then she should have – ideally – one son and one daughter. Remember, she’s already entered the marriage older than average and worked for a few years. The pressure is on for that first or second child to be a son. With each daughter, the pressure only increases.

All the while she should serve her in-laws, keep a perfect house, and maintain her looks. She’ll probably play surrogate mother or servant to a string of the husband’s relatives as they get themselves settled, but she’s lucky if she’s allowed to call her own family on the phone, let alone call them to the States. It’s not hard to see the motivation here for pursuing sex selection, even when the mother considers it a sin. Especially as the technology becomes more common, and one can know the sex of the fetus earlier and earlier.

The idea that the pressures of “traditional” society are intensified in more urban, educated, bourgeois contexts – of which immigration to the West is the essence – should not surprise anyone who’s taken Anthro or Sociology 101. I don’t know how much what I’ve said about South Asian families applies to Chinese or Korean or other East Asian families. I suspect there would be both parallels and divergences. Everything I have written here, though, is based on personal experience. Not every family is abusive, and not every woman’s situation so dire, but it is definitely more the norm than the exception.

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2 Responses to “Sex selection in the US”


  1. Hello readers..,

    The bridge between urban & rural is even more reflecting in the Asian countries.
    Bodies like the UN are coming up with the Millenium Development Goals..which does something in this direction.

  2. iqag Says:

    My contention is that the pressures faced by women are intensified in urban environments in Asian countries. Increased education or improved financial circumstances increase the likelihood of migration to an urban or semi-urban environment for rural families. In such an environment the social structures beyond the immediate family which can help to prevent really egregious abuse are broken down. Which is not to suggest that everything is roses in the village, just that in the urban middle classes there is more pressure on individuals, and specifically on individual young women, to produce specific results.


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