I am responding to allegations made by Richard Dawkins that my book is critical of science. It is not.
Mr. Dawkins bases his conclusions on an article by Ed Pilkington in the Guardian. Unfortunately, that article highlights some of the more shocking details in my book without providing context or background, misrepresenting my message.
Mr. Dawkins writes that I “blame Western science and governments” for the spread of sex selection throughout developing countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. As a science journalist, I find the allegation that I target science on the whole perplexing. I am a correspondent for Science, a journal that publishes papers by the world’s most preeminent scientists, among them Mr. Dawkins. I have also contributed to or worked for several other respected science magazines.
More specifically, Mr. Dawkins seems to believe I fault the scientists who developed amniocentesis and ultrasound in the disappearance, via sex selective abortion, of tens of millions of females from Asia’s population. I can understand how he may have drawn this conclusion from reading Pilkington’s article. My comments in publications ranging from Salon.com to Macleans to Time tell a very different story. Unnatural Selection has also been featured on the websites of science-driven organizations like the Council for Responsible Genetics and Center for Genetics and Society.
What do I actually say in my book? I point out that early research into sex determination techniques like amniocentesis and ultrasound went ahead for various reasons. With amniocentesis, scientists were intent on helping couples at risk of passing along to their children sex-linked disorders like hemophilia. With ultrasound, the focus was on monitoring high-risk pregnancies. But beginning in the 1960s a separate group of scientists proposed pushing along research into sex selection—not simply using existing techniques, but actively funding new work—for a reason that had nothing to do with avoiding disease or improving maternal health.
These scientists were interested in sex selection’s significance in the developing world, where studies had shown many couples wanted at least one son. The idea there was not simply to help parents achieve the family composition of their dreams; it was to stop couples in countries like South Korea, India, and Taiwan from continuing to have girls until they got a boy. To quote from just two of the papers and books mentioning this approach at the time:
“A type of research which would have a great effect on population control would be that related to the discovery of methods for sex determination. It has been suggested that if one could predetermine that the first offspring would be a male, it would have a great effect on the size of the family.” – William D. McElroy, BioScience, 1969
“[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males, then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.” – Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, 1968
Around this time the Population Council sent representative Sheldon Segal to India to found the department of reproductive physiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which would later inaugurate sex selection trials resulting in the abortion of hundreds of female fetuses. Segal trained the institute’s doctors in an early sex determination method—and, upon returning to the United States, stood before an audience at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to extol the use of sex selection in curbing population growth.
I included this background in my book to show that the causes underlying the tragedy sweeping through Asia include more than what Mr. Dawkins alludes to as an “ancient culture of despising women.” While Western science is not to blame for the disappearance of tens of millions of females from the global population, some Westerners did play a role in bringing sex selection to Asia. It is this role I hope we can discuss.