Unnatural Selection

Finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A Wall Street Journal best book of 2011, Discover Magazine 2011 "must-read," and Slate best book of 2011

There are over 160 million females “missing” from Asia’s population. That’s more than the entire female population of the United States. And gender imbalance—which is mainly the result of sex selective abortion—is no longer strictly an Asian problem. In Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Eastern Europe, and even in some pockets of the United States, couples are making sure at least one of their children is a son. So many parents now select for boys that they have skewed the sex ratio at birth of the entire world.

How did this occur? Why are women and girls becoming scarce in Asia and Eastern Europe as those regions develop? And what will happen when the world’s extra boys grow up?

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men addresses these questions and more—and reveals some unexpected answers. Drawing on extensive reporting in China, India, Vietnam, South Korea, Albania, and other countries, the book weaves together the story behind the world’s “missing” women into a riveting narrative. The cast of Unnatural Selection includes everyone from sex workers, mail-order brides, and militant nationalists to geneticists, activists, and AIDS researchers—along with the California fertility doctors hard at work selling the world’s parents on the latest form of sex selection. But perhaps the book’s most disturbing finding is that the gender imbalance is not, as is often argued, simply the outgrowth of entrenched sexism. In fact the story of the world’s missing women traces back to the United States.

Unnatural Selection has been translated into German, Korean, and Japanese. Read an excerpt in Mother Jones.


Praise for Unnatural Selection


“Ms Hvistendahl’s distinctive contribution is twofold. She provides a history of the modern practice of sex-selective abortion, based on new and detailed research, and she helps readers think about its possible consequences….One hopes her book will help the subject get its due.”   ― The Economist

“A bracing work of investigative reporting….As news of these (gender) imbalances has spread, many have blamed ancient preferences: India’s patriarchal social systems, for instance, or Chinese beliefs that only boys provide for ageing parents. Hvistendahl’s research puts the lie to these lazy claims.” —Joshua Kurlantzick, The Financial Times                                                                       

“Unnatural Selection reads like a great historical detective story, and it’s written with the sense of moral urgency that usually accompanies the revelation of some enormous crime.”   —Ross Douthat, The New York Times

“Massively well-documented….Engrossing….[Hvistendahl] has not only done her research but has also carried out extensive investigative journalism in several countries.   —Elaine Showalter, The Washington Post

“Ms. Hvistendahl is a first-rate reporter and has filled Unnatural Selection with gripping details…. There is so much to recommend.”   —Jonathan Last, The Wall Street Journal

“This extraordinary debut from Mara Hvistendahl reveals the fascinating yet terrifying state of sex ratio imbalance…. Her exposé on prenatal sex selection brims with bold judgments that shed light on a culturally sensitive issue. A definitive text on demographic change and its startling consequences that is both thorough and thoroughly engaging.”   — Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A hard-hitting, eye-opening study….Hvistendahl’s important, even-handed exposé considers all sides of the argument and deserves careful attention and study.   ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Unnatural Selection is an important book and a fascinating read. Mara Hvistendahl is a delightful writer: witty, engaging, and acute. But the tale she tells is deeply disturbing. Asia alone is missing 160 million women and girls, a number equal to the entire female population of the United States. According to Hvistendahl, the culprit is less deeply rooted cultural gender bias than rising wealth, elite attitudes, and Western influence and technology. Development, at least for the coming decades, will produce not only fewer children overall, but also many fewer girls. The result is a future for many parts of the world, from India to China, Azerbaijan to Albania, where brides are much more likely to be bought, women are much more likely to be trafficked, and men are much more likely to be frustrated. For the present, we must confront the stark reality that the availability of ultrasound and ready abortion are sharply reducing the number of women in the world.”     —Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO, New America Foundation

“This is a book about whole nations wounded by sex selection. Mara Hvistendahl displays a wide knowledge of China and other countries, revealing the traumatic reproductive battles that have scarred generations. She describes a history we would be wise to learn from. If we don’t, we risk leaving a generation of men without wives—and further endangering women in Asia.”   —Xinran, author of Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother and Sky Burial

“Yes, it’s a rigorous exploration of the world’s ‘missing women,’ but it’s more than that, too: an extraordinarily vivid look at the implications of the problem. Hvistendahl writes beautifully, with an eye for detail but also the big picture. She has a fierce intelligence but, more important, a fierce intellectual independence; she writes with a hard edge but no venom—rather, a cool and hard passion.”   —Stephen J. Dubner, coauthor of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics

“A critically important story of demographic surprises and skewed sex ratios, trafficked wives and mail-order brides. Thanks to the devaluation of females and misused technologies, sex selection has reached staggering dimensions in recent decades. Hvistendahl’s call to action is the most well-documented and compelling yet.”    ―Judy Norsigian, executive director, Our Bodies Ourselves

“Brave, well researched and imminently controversial….[Hvistendahl] writes in a colourfully anecdotal style, showing her reader that the subject of demography, far from dry and dusty, is like a juggernaut gathering up history, science, geopolitics, biology, anthropology, sociology and economics into itself as it hurtles toward the future.   —Claudia Casper, The Globe and Mail

“A gripping read. Expensive dowries, honour and maintaining the family name are the main drivers behind the increasingly skewed sex rations, but Hvistendahl makes clear that these factors alone don’t capture the complex cultural and social environment that has created such a huge problem… Hvistendahl’s book beautifully explains how trying to conceive the ‘perfect’ child will only lead to a more imperfect world.”    —Angela Saini, New Scientist

“[F]or anyone who’s ever looked at China’s draconian one-child policy and chalked it up to an outdated, sexist preference for boys that’s limited to Eastern cultures, Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection should be required reading. It might be the most important book written about women in years.”   —Rachael Larimore, Slate