Cautious optimism as fears of women shortage quelled

THE world is pulling back from a looming shortage of women.

Cheap ultrasound technology and selective abortions in South Korea, China and India have pushed down the proportion of female babies to historic lows, making millions of men unmarriageable and sparking abductions of women and sex crimes.

In China, the number of boys born per 100 girls has peaked at 119. In South Korea and India, it has hit 116. The usual ratio is 106.

Now a study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research has found the worst has passed in South Korea, with the ratio back to normal at 106 after reaching 116.5 in 1990.

The authors from Columbia University and Seoul National University say the study ”may offer a preview of the demographic future of India and China”, meaning a global female shortage will never eventuate.

Chinese authorities had been predicting an excess of 24 million men over women of marrying age by the end of the decade.

Economists Lena Edlund and Chulhee Lee say increasing Korean wealth has made boys less important as a means of providing for their parents in old age. It has allowed parents to feel they can sacrifice having a boy in order to have a better shot at getting grandchildren.

”Sons are more productive than daughters, grandchildren through sons are more valued than grandchildren through daughters, but grandchildren through daughters are better than no grandchildren,” the authors say.

In Australia there is no clear evidence of what parents prefer, although Sydney IVF reported that before sex selection was made illegal in 2006 those customers who made a choice preferred girls 59 to 41.

Australian National University demographer Peter McDonald said the overwhelming concern of Australians seemed to be to balance families.

”The desire to have one boy and one girl is stronger in English-speaking countries, it’s a stronger trend that doesn’t occur in other parts of Europe.”

His colleague Edith Gray said parents were reluctant to discuss their preferences.

”We found people felt very conscious of speaking about it in public. There are lots of taboos surrounding the topic, a feeling [that] ‘we should be happy for a child no matter what the sex’.”

Medical tourism company Global Health Travel has helped about 100 Australian couples travel to Thailand for family-balancing IVF treatment in the past year.

Director Cassandra Italia said she gets inquiries from China and India but only helps Australians. ”In Australia the preference is 50-50, they’re not choosing just males. Within our company, designing families is not acceptable, we help balance families.”

Packages to the Thai Superior assisted reproductive technology clinic cost $11,000.

With flights and accommodation, couples can expect to spend about $15,000.

Half of the treatment takes place in Australia, including pre-screening tests, consultation, and ovarian hyperstimulation.

A review of the Australian guidelines is planned this year, with many clinicians and patient support groups expected to push for an opening up of Australia’s rules.

Keith Harrison, scientific director of the Queensland Fertility Group, believes there is demand from the community.

”Opponents will say a significant number of embryos are created which will be discarded. You could argue for those embryos to be donated to those who can’t conceive, but donating embryos is another contentious issue. I suspect a middle ground will be reached,” he said.

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