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Robert PriceOne topic you should never argue about in polite company is abortion. The politics are volatile, the emotions fraught.

With the conversation climate the way it is (stormy), the only people who can talk about the issue are either diehard abortionists or martyrdom-craving anti-abortionists. Anybody else who speaks on the issue will find themselves banished to the distant edges of one of the two fringes.

So I won’t argue about abortion in this column. No argument. No discussion.

But I will mention a study that appeared in April – one that mentions the forbidden topic.

This study – published under the factual yet lustreless headline “Systematic assessment of the sex ratio at birth for all countries and estimation of national imbalances and regional reference levels” – attempts to determine as comprehensively as possible the imbalance in the world’s sex ratio at birth.

That is, the researchers wanted to know by how much do parents prefer to give birth to boys than to girls.

To this end, the researchers pulled from a range of data sources, including censuses and birth registries. The study surveyed birth data from 202 countries from 1950 to 2017.

The computation reveals a noted imbalance in the ratio of male to female births. In the language of the study’s authors, there are 23 million “missing female births.” Most of these female births (22.5 million) went missing in China and India.

Readers should note that the study did not originate with an anti-abortion family research organization or a church. This study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. As research organizations go, the NAS is about as reliable as one can find.

Twenty-three million is a humbling number. It’s the equivalent of eliminating every living female from Canada all at once, and several million more still to come.

It’s almost unreal, like a hard-to-believe fact of military history. We stare amazed at the number in the same way we stare at the damage wrought by tsunami or marvel at the moon.

Except natural disasters and planetary objects are naturally occurring phenomena. What we have here is a purely man-made phenomenon (emphasis on man). Simply put, these parents didn’t want daughters. Or to state it in more congenial language, they preferred sons.

Let’s shelve the riotous discussion we could have about abortion (I said I wouldn’t discuss it). How should we respond to figures like these and the attitudes towards daughters from which they spring?

Ideally, we, as a group if not individually, will agree that selecting births on sex is always and everywhere wrong. That it’s misogyny in one of its most explicit forms.

Unfortunately, this response will likely remain in the realm of ideals. We can’t take that position without talking about that other thing that I said we wouldn’t discuss.

I imagine other responses will span the gamut from uninterested to unimpressed.

From some quarters, I can hear voices saying, “Who are we to judge the cultural practices of other societies?” The more direct of this cadre will remind us that laissez-faire means we don’t have to care.

And another quarter will want to debate where we place our priorities. Given all that we’ve learned recently, shouldn’t we be more concerned with the environment?

My guess is that none of this speculation matters. Most people won’t ever hear about this study. I came across it late one night during a deep-sea fishing expedition on the Internet. It was chance encounter, a lucky hook, but it went in deep and pulled me along until I saw the sun coming up.

It was a beautiful morning and I was grateful to see it.

Robert Price lectures at the University of Toronto Mississauga.


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