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For India's daughters, a dark birth day

Infanticide and sex-selective abortion yield a more skewed gender ratio.

By Uma GirishContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 2005


The oleander plant yields a bright, pleasant flower, but also a milky sap that, if ingested, can be a deadly poison. It's one of the methods families use to kill newborn girls in the Salem District of Tamil Nadu, a part of India notorious for female infanticide.

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Though the government has battled the practice for decades, India's gender imbalance has worsened in recent years. Any progress toward halting infanticide, it seems, has been offset by a rise in sex-selective abortions. Too many couples - aided by medical technology, unethical doctors, and weak enforcement of laws banning abortion on the basis of gender - are electing to end a pregnancy if the fetus is female.

The consequence of female infanticide and, more recently, abortion is India's awkwardly skewed gender ratio, among the most imbalanced in the world. The ratio among children up to the age of 6 was 962 girls per 1,000 boys in 1981, but 20 years later the inequity was actually worse: 927 girls per 1,000 boys.

Infanticide is illegal in India (though never prosecuted), and laws are also in place to stop sex- selective abortions. But in some places, national rules don't hold enough sway to overcome local religious and social customs - which remain biased in favor of sons over daughters.

"Factors like dowry, imbalance in the employment sector whereby the male is seen as breadwinner, and societal pressure to abort female fetuses conspire to increase the antigirl bias," says Ajay K. Tripathi of the Advanced Studies in Public Health Programme, of the Institute of Health Systems in Hyderabad. Government and the medical profession, he says, need to put more resources - and more political will - into strengthening and enforcing the laws.

A case in point is legislation - introduced last year but now stalled - that would prohibit all genetic-counseling facilities, clinics, and labs from divulging the sex of the fetus. The hope is that if parents don't know "it's a girl," fewer will resort to abortion. But the proposal, which would amend a 1994 law, is opposed by medical groups. They argue that technology used to monitor fetal health - such as ultrasound scans and amniocentesis - cannot be put under such intense scrutiny.

Others, though, see another reason for the opposition: Abortion is a lucrative business that many doctors do not want to see curtailed. "Abortions are a low-risk, high-profit business. As a specialist in fetal medicine, I can tell you that no pregnant woman would suffer if the ultrasound test were banned," says Puneet Bedi, a gynecologist at Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi. "Right now, it is used to save 1 out of 20,000 fetuses and kill 20 out of every 100 because [it reveals that the baby] is the wrong gender."

India stipulates that only a government hospital, registered facility, or medical practitioner with appropriate qualifications may perform an abortion. The reality, however, is that only about 15 percent of all abortions take place under such circumstances, according to the Indian Medical Association. About 11.2 million illegal abortions are performed each year off the record. Such abortions are often "female feticide," experts say.

In Salem district, for instance, signs posted in towns reinforce the societal message: "Pay 500 rupees and save 50,000 rupees later," a suggestion that aborting a female fetus now could save a fortune in wedding expenses in the future.