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Asia's Male Tilt

Sex-selective abortions leave an unstable population

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This year, millions of young men in China and India will reach their 19th birthday with little prospect of finding a wife. It's not that young, single women aren't available - it's that they don't exist in the same numbers.

Many of these men caught in a marriage squeeze are the first of a generation, born in the mid-'80s, whose mothers used the new technology of ultrasound to determine if their fetuses were female or male. More likely than not, if the fetus was a female, it was aborted.

In many Asian nations, an age-old preference for sons, combined with new prenatal methods of knowing the sex of a fetus, have produced a lopsided gender imbalance that's only now becoming a potential social problem - and not just for the masses of lonely bachelors.

A new book by two Western scholars warns that the widespread practice of sex-selective abortion - despite being outlawed years ago in India and China - could add to societal instability and violent crime, possibly pushing governments to take drastic, antidemocratic steps.

That's because the skewed sex ratios in these societies are staggering. In its 2000 census, China found the proportion of boys through age 4 was more than 120 to every 100 girls at those ages. In India, the pattern is about the same, with reports of some villages having no girls. In most societies, the normal sex ratio for this age group is only 105 to 100 or less.

Childless men as 'bare branches'

The book, "Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population," (M.I.T. Press), by Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, connects the dots of a huge demographic trend that carries international implications. ("Bare branches" comes from a Chinese phrase for adult offspring who don't bear children, like empty fruit trees.)

Policymakers should take note: China, India, and other nations that can't stop this practice might see great social upheavals, such as mass migration of young males or the widespread kidnapping of women.

"The security logic of high sex-ratio societies predisposes nations to see some utility in interstate conflict," the authors write.

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