Sex-selective abortion in Georgia is a topic that has caught international attention. From an Economist article published in September 2013 to a 2015 UN report, Georgia tends to be portrayed as having one of the worst sex-selective abortion problems in the world. Closer inspection of the data, however, suggests the issue may be blown out of proportion.
The first study to draw attention to the sex-selective abortion issue in Georgia was published in 2013 in the journal International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, and relied on statistics compiled by the World Health Organization. The authors found a sex-at-birth ratio of 121 boys for every 100 girls born in Georgia from 2005-2009. That number suggested there was a problem: one of the most common estimates of the natural sex-at-birth ratio is 105 boys for every 100 girls, or 95.2 girls for every 100 boys. Any difference between the natural and observed ratios in favor of boys is generally thought to be an indicator of sex-selective abortion.
The study suggested that Georgia had one of the largest sex-selective abortion problems in the world.
However, a missing data issue, a rounding error, and an anomalous sex-at-birth ratio in 2008 in the original study drove up the reported sex at birth ratio in Georgia. In the original academic article, the sex-at-birth ratio from 2005-2009 is actually the average of the ratios in 2005 and 2008. Martin McKee, one of the co-authors of the study stated; "The figure of 121 boys to 100 girls in 2005-2009 was calculated on the basis of the data submitted to the WHO at the time, from which several years were missing."
The missing data had a very large effect on the results of the original study. In 2008, the ratio of boys to girls born in Georgia was exceptionally high at 128 boys born for every 100 girls. In 2005, 113 boys were born for every 100 girls, another high year for Georgia. Using these two years leads to an average of 120 boys born for every 100 girls from 2005-2009.
Notably, when asked about the discrepancy between the article, which reported 121 boys, and the 120 boys-100 girls ratio in the data, McKee acknowledged that “a very small rounding error crept in.”
When the full data from 2005-2009 is considered, the average sex at birth ratio drops to 113 boys for every 100 girls, rather than 120 – about half the reported deviation from the natural rate.
On top of the incomplete data issue, the 2008 sex-at-birth ratio is an outlier that exaggerates the magnitude of sex selective abortion in Georgia. If from 2005-2009, the average ratio was 113 boys for every 100 girls, the average ratio for the same period excluding 2008 would be 110 boys for every 100 girls.
To flip the statistic around by looking at the ratio of girls born for every 100 boys, the average from 2005-2009 was 88 when including 2008 data, and 91 when excluding it.
Translating this data into a number for girls who should have been born, but were not, indicates that there were 6.74 missing girls for every 100 boys born during the 2005-2009 period, when including the 2008 data. Without 2008, this drops to 4.2.
The causes for the 2008 outlier cannot be determined for sure. Although a higher than natural sex-at-birth ratio favoring boys is often explained by sex-selective abortions and infanticide, comparing an estimate of the number of missing girls to the number of abortions over time suggests that some other factor may be at work.
Dividing the number of missing girls by the number of abortions in a year provides an estimate of the share of sex-selective abortions needed to plausibly explain the sex-at-birth imbalance. Such calculations would suggest that sex-selective abortion increased from 6 percent of all registered abortions in 2007 to 24 percent in 2008.
To be clear, these estimates assume that the share of abortions which were unregistered did not dramatically change from year to year, and, if they did, they did not largely consist of sex-selective abortions.
The calculations suggest one of three things: there was a dramatic increase in sex selective abortions in 2008, the number of unregistered abortions dramatically increased, and they were also predominantly sex selective, or something else was driving the anomalous sex-at-birth ratio.
In the other category, many possible explanations exist. Notably, given the often poor state of data collection at the municipal level in Georgia, where births are recorded, documentation errors could explain the discrepancy.
The data alone cannot tell us whether 2008 saw a dramatic increase in the number of sex-selective abortions, or whether something else drove the anomalous sex-at-birth ratio. What is clear is that Georgia’s problem with sex-selective abortion is smaller than often portrayed.
That is not to say it is not a problem. In 2015, there were still about 4 missing girls for every 100 boys born.
But understanding the magnitude of the problem is a first step towards effectively addressing it.
To view the data used to calculate the figures used in this article, click here.
Dustin Gilbreath is a Policy Analyst at CRRC-Georgia. He co-edits the organization’s blog Social Science in the Caucasus. The views presented in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CRRC-Georgia.