'It's a boy' is still what parents hope to hear

For new parents, can there be any more beautiful colors than pink and blue? "It's a girl!" and "It's a boy!" - the announcements ring out joyously to relatives and friends, heralding a new generation and the continuity of a family's lineage.

Yet pink and blue are still not cheered and cherished in equal measure. Despite growing equality for girls and women, Americans continue to want sons over daughters. In a new Gallup Poll, 38 percent of respondents say they would prefer a boy if they could have only one child. Twenty-eight percent would choose a girl. Slightly more than a quarter express no preference. The rest have no opinion.

Among young people, the gap widens. Almost half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 would prefer a son. Twenty-nine percent want a daughter, while 18 percent say it doesn't matter.

Turn to the world of international adoption, and attitudes shift. When American couples or single women adopt overseas, they overwhelmingly prefer girls. At the Alliance for Children, an international adoption agency in Wellesley, Mass., Bonnie Delongchamp, a director, notes that about three-quarters of all prospective adoptive families who talk to her would like a healthy infant girl.

Among those who adopt from China, that wish typically comes true. Most infants and toddlers available in that country are girls, reflecting a cultural longing for boys that has intensified because of China's strict one-child policy.

Ms. Delongchamp and social workers at the agency speculate that adoptive parents may regard boys as stronger and more resilient than girls. If some children must live in orphanages, they reason, boys might survive better than girls, who need rescuing.

At least these baby girls in orphanages have survived to be rescued. In China, female infanticide reportedly remains common. What an irony in a country where Chairman Mao once said that "women hold up half the sky."

In India, too, a strong preference for sons has tragic consequences for some daughters. Although dowries were outlawed in 1961, they remain a fact of life in many families. If a bride's husband or in-laws insist on more dowry money than her parents can pay, she could be "accidentally" burned to death in a kitchen fire. According to one report in 1999, unofficial estimates put the number of dowry deaths at 25,000 a year.

Even if that figure is inflated, the demands for dowry payments from brides' parents reportedly remain so burdensome that many families want desperately to avoid having girls. Ultrasound technology makes it possible to determine the sex of the baby and abort female fetuses.

Female infanticide is an ancient practice, and cultural attitudes can remain deeply entrenched. But public attention from reasoned voices around the world, spotlighting the tragic loss of unborn daughters, baby girls, and brides, could, over time, help to change barbaric practices. In the same way that Western journalists have made newspaper readers and television viewers aware of the plight of women in Afghanistan and the practice of female circumcision in Africa, they could focus, again and again, on the tragedies wrought by gender bias.

Among Americans responding to the Gallup Poll, one piece of encouraging news stands out. Even parents who didn't get the gender of their choice say that once the baby arrived, it seemed "right" either way.

If only that attitude could cross international borders and permeate cultures where girls and women still face daunting prejudice. In the 21st century, when women are indeed holding up half the sky, the test for enlightened attitudes everywhere will be to regard the birth of baby girls as a cause for rejoicing, and their presence in the family not as a burden but a blessing.

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