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Missing Women: How Abortion Fuels the Sex Trade

On Sunday, June 26, CNN aired a heart-breaking report, “Nepal’s Stolen Children.” The documentary, narrated by actress Demi Moore, told the story of Nepalese girls who were sold into slavery and turned into prostitutes in neighboring India.

During the broadcast Moore broke down and cried and spoke about making sure this kind of thing never happens again.

While no one can diagree with that, the problem is that we are ignoring an important part of what is driving this inhumane traffic in innocence.

That “part” was the subject of a New York Times column the day after the broadcast. The title, “160 Million and Counting,” referred to the number of “missing” women in the world. Not “missing” as in “disappeared,” rather, as in “never born in the first place.”

As Times columnist Ross Douthat reminded readers, twenty years ago the number of “missing” women was estimated by experts to be 100 million. They examined the skewed sex ratios in places like China and his native India and rightly concluded that something terrible was happening.

Twenty years later, the estimate has grown by 60 percent and now, as then, people who ostensibly are concerned about these sorts of things are still reluctant to name the cause: abortion.

Citing the work of social scientist Mara Hvistendahl,  Douthat points out an uncomfortable truth: what Times readers would no doubt see as “female empowerment” lies behind the missing women. According to Hvistendahl, in places like India, “women use their increased autonomy” to abort their daughters and “select for sons,” who enhance their social status.

While the practice of sex-selection abortion originated among the more affluent, it eventually spread down the social ladder. And this brings us back to the tragedies in Nepal.

The impact of selective abortion goes beyond the lives ended in the womb, horrid as that is, it affects society. A 2008 article by two Loyola Law School professors found that by reducing the number of potential brides, selective abortion in India increased the demand for sex workers.

And one way that “demand” is being filled is through the Nepalese girls featured in the CNN documentary. The “lucky” ones are “smuggled and purchased from poor countries like Nepal and Bhutan to be brides for Indian men.”

The more unfortunate are sold into the Indian sex trade.

The social ills and the accompanying suffering caused by sex-selection abortion is why India and China have outlawed the practice. But the practice and suffering still continues. Cultural norms are hard to overcome.

That’s as true in the West as in Asia. Douthat notes that sex-selection abortion puts Western liberals “in a distinctly uncomfortable position.” They can’t deny the reality of the practice but, at the same time, their own worldview leaves them hanging in mid-air.

After all, they insist “that the unborn aren’t human beings yet, and that the right to an abortion is nearly absolute.” 160 million missing women and the suffering that radiates in all directions tells you where that kind of thinking inevitably leads.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of the poverty of modern thinking: faced with a great evil and unable to address the answer. That’s something more to cry about.

This article published on July 8, 2011.

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