On his first night of rotation at a Delhi hospital, Puneet Bedi was assigned to the obstetrics ward. A wide-eyed 20-year-old medical student, he was excited by the prospect of becoming a doctor responsible for human life. He hoped to witness a birth that night.

Minutes after catching a glimpse of the labor room, Bedi was intercepted by a cat with something bloody dangling from its mouth. It wasn't until he saw a five-month-old fetus discarded on an uncovered tray, lying in a pool of blood, that he realized what the cat had eaten.

As the night wore on, Bedi witnessed more abortions than births. All of them were performed on women who were at least four months pregnant. When he worked up the nerve to ask why so many fetuses were being discarded, and why he had seen a cat eat one, a staff member explained tersely: "Because they are girls."

Three decades later, Bedi, an ob-gyn consultant at a New Delhi hospital, recounted this experience to Mara Hvistendahl, who last year persuasively demonstrated a chilling reality in her Pulitzer-nominated book, Unnatural Selection: There's a gender-based genocide afoot the world over, and it's having profound implications—none of them good.

For starters, there's the skewed sex ratio. Demographer Christophe Guilmoto has calculated that if Asia's sex ratio at birth had remained at its natural balance of 105 boys to 100 girls (boys are slightly more vulnerable to childhood diseases, and this ratio provides for equal numbers at marriageable age) over the past three decades, the continent would have an additional 163 million females. That's how many females he estimates have been aborted—the equivalent of every female in America today.

"No more girls at the mall or in supermarkets, in hospitals, boardrooms, or classrooms," says Hvistendahl. "Imagine this, and you come close to picturing the problem."

In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn confirm the scope of the problem: More girls have been killed in the past 50 years than men in all the wars of the 20th century. In countries like China and India, hearing "It's a girl" is not cause for celebration; it's a death sentence.

Why, then, if one of the largest crimes against humanity is happening under our noses, have we heard so little about it? And what, if anything, is the church doing to slow down the holocaust?

Bias from Birth

Hvistendahl, a science journalist based in Beijing, says sex-selective abortions have gone underreported largely because of where they are happening the most: Asia and Eastern Europe.

"Gender imbalance has been treated as a local problem, as something that happens to other countries," says Hvistendahl. But "the gender imbalance is a local problem in the way a super-power's financial crisis is a local problem …. Sooner or later, it affects you."

In America, sooner or later was this spring, when House Republicans put to vote the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA), a federal law banning sex-selective abortions. The vote came on the heels of media attention to census data that suggested that Korean, Indian, and Chinese communities in the United States were importing their cultural preference for boys, given the skewed sex ratio among their second- and third-born children. The House bill failed in large part because the Republicans opted for a voting procedure that all but assured too few votes to move it to the Senate. But it succeeded in one sense: Americans were now talking about gender-based abortion (dubbed "gendercide" by feminist Mary Anne Warren in the mid-1980s).

For girls, the fight to stay alive begins in the womb. Culturally speaking, boys have always been favored over girls throughout the world—even, until recently, in the United States. Boys carry on the family name. They become their parents' retirement plan in many cultures. They cost less to marry off and often have better access to education and political influence. Religious beliefs often bolster the preference: Some Asian communities persist in the deep-seated belief that ancestors are worshiped in the afterlife through the male line.

Article continues below

The deeply held preference for sons persists in India. Although dowries have been illegal there since 1961, families are still expected to provide a handsome compensation to future sons-in-laws and their families, which creates intense financial pressure. As a result, millions of Indian families choose abortion to ensure they don't have to bear the burden of more than one daughter. The result Only 914 girls for every 1,000 boys under age 6 in India, according to the 2011 census—the greatest gender imbalance seen in the country of 1.2 billion since its 1947 independence.

'Few people seem to realize that three little words—one child policy—resulted in what amounts to an hourly Tiananmen massacre, for the past 30 years, in broad daylight, right under the world's nose.'—Chai Ling, president, All Girls Allowed

But cultural preference alone doesn't bring about the disparity in birthrates. For a skewed gender ratio to take hold, sex-selective technology—which reveals a baby's sex before birth—must be widely available. Ultrasound technology, according to Hvistendahl, is one of the primary reasons why girls have also gone missing from Albania and Azerbaijan, for example, and why millions of girls are missing throughout Asia and parts of Europe.

Sex selection, she contends, has grown out of a drive to control population, using technology, primarily ultrasounds, and abortion as our servants. For example, since China instituted its one-child policy in 1980 to control a massive population, couples have increasingly relied on the illegal use of ultrasound technology, which moved into mass production in 1982, to determine the sex of their unborn children.

Amniocentesis used to be an expensive way for parents to learn the sex of their child. An ultrasound, however, costs about $12 in China. People will pay technicians up to $150 in bribes for a black-market baby scan, which is only one-tenth the fine they would have to pay for having a child without a birth permit—and far less than the cost of raising a daughter. Under the one-child policy, each time a woman wants to try for a baby, she has to apply for a shengyu zheng (birth permit). Unmarried women and those who already have a child are typically denied permits unless they're willing to pay a fine for an "out of plan" birth.

Daniel Wang, honorary vice mayor of a province in China, explains that local family-planning agents are financially incentivized to prevent "out of plan" births. "If the local official wants the money, they enforce the policy more strictly," he told Christianity Today. Agents use informants and random searches to find pregnant women and forcibly terminate their pregnancies.

One lonely voice that's challenging the one-child policy and its attendant injustices is Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, an organization advocating against forced abortions in China. She says, "China's cruel and barbaric forced abortion policy causes more violence towards women and girls than any other official policy on earth. It is China's war against women and girls. Women are forcibly aborted up to the ninth month of pregnancy. It is official government rape."

Article continues below

Littlejohn's description proved to be not so hyperbolic this June, when photos of Feng Jianmei, a Chinese woman, circulated on the Internet. Feng, 23, who was seven months pregnant, is seen lying dazed next to her bloody aborted child in a hospital bed. After media including the BBC and CNN picked up the story, China's family-planning commission launched an investigation, concluding that the local family-planning agency had forced Feng to have the abortion.

In China, it's estimated that 1.2 million forced abortions of this nature occur each year—not including the sex-selective abortions willingly performed by couples. "Though no one could forget the Tiananmen movement, even more than 20 years later, few people seem to realize that three little words—one child policy—resulted in what amounts to an hourly Tiananmen massacre, for the past 30 years, in broad daylight, right under the world's nose," says Chai Ling, a Chinese activist twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as a student leader in the Tiananmen Square movement.

At its current rate, India's on track to exceed the 1.2 million number this decade. As Sabu George, a New Delhi activist for unborn girls, told The Times of India, "We will then have the dubious distinction of being the country eliminating the largest number of girls every year."

According to Kristof, ultrasound technology hasn't reached much of rural India and some of the interior states yet, but it will. "If you think the situation is bad now, wait 25 years. It's going to be much worse."

Baby steps

Kristof believes that increasingly easy access to ultrasounds may be the biggest challenge in stemming gendercide globally. He warns that India in particular is "going to get worse before it gets better. It's a long, slow effort to change culture, while ultrasounds are rising rapidly in areas"—particularly in rural areas, The New York Times journalist told ct. "The change in ultrasound access is going to swamp the change in valuing daughters."

Further, Hvistendahl says, legal enforcement against sex-selective abortions, including police surveillance and punishment by imprisonment, have not yet made a real dent in the sex-ratio imbalances in India and China. The challenge with imposing such laws, as Hvistendahl discovered, is that doctors and family-planning agents have financial incentives to keep performing illegal abortions. According to Bedi, the Indian ob-gyn, "Almost a third of Indian gynecologists' income comes from abortion… . The doctors are very greedy. They are behind the money. It has become a big business, this business of sex selection."

Margaret Datiles, associate fellow for the Culture of Life Foundation, thinks a tighter ban is needed. "Although bans on sex-selection abortions are helpful and increase public awareness, they are not the real solution. Bans and restrictions on abortion itself are the only way to stop gendercide," says the legal scholar.

And this is where the pro-choice camp has fallen silent, charge Datiles and other cultural commentators. To argue that abortion itself should be restricted would be to cede ground won since Roe v. Wade. In a brief on gendercide, Datiles says, "Now, when we are faced with data showing the severe adverse effects that abortion has had on women worldwide, the feminist movement has failed to stand up for these women and continues to ignore the fact that 163 million girls are missing because of sex-selective abortion.

"This conflict pinpoints the fundamental error of the feminist and reproductive health rights movement: You can't promote or protect women while at the same time promoting abortion."

Article continues below

Littlejohn, meanwhile, is trying to find middle ground. "Gendercide is neither a pro-life nor a pro-choice issue—it's a human rights issue."

Which is where the church may have the most influence: teaching the God-bestowed dignity of every human being, and, in a hopeful and ironic twist, using ultrasound technology—along with old-fashioned hands-and-feet ministry—to reinforce that teaching.

"The issue of female feticide is basically an issue of human dignity, not just discrimination against women," says Raaj Mondol, CEO of Salt Initiatives, a nonprofit promoting the dignity and equality of women in New Delhi. Mondol believes church leaders can effectively transform the mindset on girls. "Our intervention cannot just focus on the issue of female feticide alone without addressing the man-woman relationship in the home, church, and society. The call for the church is to demonstrate a biblical model for these relations." In particular, says Mondol, the idea that men and women are created equally to serve as partners to rule over creation provides a spiritual framework that challenges sex-selective abortion in his country.

But farther east, getting Chinese pastors to preach against abortion could be a tall order. Since the Chinese church began to blossom in the two decades following the Tiananmen Square movement, an entire generation of Christians has grown up in the shadow of the one-child policy. Abortion is commonplace and part of the Chinese experience, and the church in China has been virtually silent on the issue.

John Ensor, former executive director for global initiatives at Heartbeat International and author of the book Innocent Blood: Challenging the Powers of Death with the Gospel of Life, has seen openness to the gospel on the sanctity of life—a message that is spreading organically throughout China. Since 1992, he has been sharing the gospel at pregnancy help centers in the United States, along with using visuals—including ultrasound—to show pregnant women the stages of fetal development. Ironically, though ultrasound has been a major accomplice in sex-selective abortions, Heartbeat International and his new organization, PassionLife, are tapping into its redemptive power.

"As women and men in China see the tiny images of human hands and spine and femur bones, and they hear Scripture that describes being fearfully and wonderfully made and a God who sees our unformed bodies in our mother's womb, they are beginning to grasp the value of life," says Ensor.

Using Scripture, visuals, and models, Heartbeat International recently trained more than 100 Chinese church leaders about God's love for all life. The majority of the leaders in attendance were women, and nearly all of them had either had an abortion or assisted a friend in getting one. The men present had encouraged the practice of abortion as a form of birth control and obedience to the government. According to Ensor, the response to the teaching was powerful, as the church leaders entered a period of sorrow, grieving, and repentance. Following that, they prayed for forgiveness and healing. The word has spread quickly, and as more churches receive this training, more and more women and men are responding to the gospel message.

Showers of Grace

Chai Ling agrees with Ensor: Ultimately gospel transformation is the only long-term solution to the injustices brought about by the one-child policy.

Chai's organization, All Girls Allowed (AGA), recently initiated a baby shower program that financially supports enrolled couples in poor Chinese villages during the first year of their daughter's life.

Article continues below

"We give $240 to save a mother and her daughter's life," Chai told CT. "The showers encourage them to keep their baby daughter—to help the mothers know their baby girls are valued and worth keeping. We're seeing a remarkable work by God of girls being more cherished and welcomed."

"When the West supports girl births," says Chai, "the news spreads throughout the village and becomes a powerful message of value that the Chinese families begin to grasp."

At the end of 2011, AGA had raised enough money to rescue 1,000 unborn babies from being aborted. The baby shower program is being implemented in small countryside villages where fewer than 50 babies are born each year. "We believe that as the decision to keep baby girls becomes normative, these villages will begin to naturally produce even at-birth gender ratios," says Chai. "As gender ratios balance out in these small villages, we expect that other villages, towns, cities, and provinces will follow suit."

Chai's goal has gotten a hefty boost from Saddleback Church, which committed to sponsoring 5,000 baby shower gifts in 2012 after Chai shared her testimony at the Orange County campus early this year. Chai hopes to see more churches do likewise. Saddleback leader Rick Warren explains his support: Girls are "the single-most vulnerable people on the planet. You're young and female. In most places, this means you have zero rights."

Along with supporting the AGA baby shower program, Saddleback also has committed to support families that choose to adopt—a way to rescue the estimated 1 million children, mostly girls, who would otherwise be abandoned each year in China alone. "There are 146 million orphans in the world," Warren told ct. "You can't build orphanages fast enough to take care of all the orphans."

Plus, says Warren, "Kids don't need an institution; they need a family. The most natural organization to support those families is the local church. If … support is given in, to, and through the local church, we can do far more than we could ever do any other way.

"The only organization big enough to stop this issue is the church. In 10 million villages, they may have nothing else, but they will always have a church. If we're going to stop something at the grassroots level, it has to be done through the church. It has the most volunteers, and the local pastor, who's marrying and burying his people, his beloved. He has more credibility in his community than any ngo or I could ever have."

Kristof agrees. "The rapid rise of Christianity in China is going to have far-reaching effects. I can see the pro-life attitude gaining more traction," he said, noting that South Korea, whose widely Christian culture has helped balance out its sex ratio at birth, is a hopeful example of a culture headed in the right direction. (CT's full interview with Kristof appeared earlier this month.)

Meanwhile, Saddleback has committed to supporting 500 families who opt to adopt domestically, and another 500 who adopt overseas.

It's hard to imagine that gendercide could ever be redeemed by God for his good purposes, but Chai believes ending this atrocity will be the most effective way to advance the gospel.

"We are confident that as the church turns from death toward life, and as they witness to others about the abundant life that can be found in Christ, the kingdom of God will advance all the more."

Marian V. Liautaud is editor of church management resources at Christianity Today. Her CT eBook War on Womenlooks at this issue in greater depth.

Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Abortion and the War on Women," a Bible study based on this article.

Issue: