Prenatal attack on women. Primal and ultimate discrimination against daughters: Amniocentesis is a uterine test that can be used to determine the sex of an unborn child; misused in India, it has led to the aborting of female fetuses in a society that values males more than females. SEX-SELECTIVE ABORTIONS.

Usha Parekh had four daughters - and she was desperate for a son. Desperate, but afraid.

Afraid that her husband might abandon her, afraid of the constant insults of her mother-in-law, afraid of the taunts of other relatives.

``When I became pregnant again, I came near the breaking point. I had to have a son this time,'' says Mrs. Parekh, 27. She is married to a businessman in Bombay.

``I dreamed of the little boy playing in the mud, of rocking him to sleep. I dreamed that my husband was laughing and tossing the baby in the air.

``He had stopped doing that when our third daughter was born. His indifference to my daughters was palpable - to me even more so.''

One morning, while Parekh was riding the Bombay suburban train to visit her mother, a poster caught her eye. It advertised ``amniocentesis,'' a genetic technique used to determine the condition and sex of an unborn child.

She rushed with her mother to the clinic to get the test. To her delight, her baby was a boy. She felt all her troubles had come to an end.

But what if the fetus had been a girl? Would Parekh have gotten an abortion?

If she had, for some it would have just been considered another statistic in the estimated 78,000 female fetuses aborted in India between 1978 and 1983. Thousands of these abortions were done for sex-discriminatory reasons.

This misuse of genetic testing, ostensibly under the garb of testing for birth defects in the unborn, is now a flourishing business - mainly in northern India, where a daughter's birth may be considered a near-calamity.

Recent protests in the media and by women's and civil rights groups against widespread use of amniocentesis for this purpose has called attention to what some see as a technological aid to female feticide.

It is still essentially an urban phenomenon confined primarily to the middle classes. But amniocentesis clinics are spreading in rural areas, indicating that this discrimination has widespread sociological roots.

``How else can we understand this phenomenon except in the context of sociocultural values that treat the birth of a daughter in the family as a great disaster?'' asks Vibhuti Patel of the Women's Center in Bombay, which has been in the forefront of a campaign to ban sex-determination clinics.

Boys have long been favored in most parts of India. The tradition of viewing the male as the provider for parents in their old age reinforces the preference for sons. Economic reasons for sons are especially strong in predominantly rural areas, but also exist elsewhere.

Sons are perceived as being economic assets to the family. They contribute productive labor and capture some wealth in the form of a dowry when they get married. Sons are also perceived as needed to carry the family lineage and to perform religious rituals on the death of parents.

Girls have long been neglected. Apart from the social and cultural dominance of men, women are discriminated against in subtler ways. For instance, women and girls are poorly nourished in many Indian families.

Studies have also shown that girls and women tend to be neglected in receiving hospital treatment. One study in south India showed that the money spent in treating 19 firstborn girls was 38 percent of the money spent on treating 18 firstborn boys. For girls born down the line, there was a virtual absence of medical treatment.

This discrimination clearly shows up in the statistics.

India is one of few countries in the world (some others being Pakistan and Iran) that show an adverse female-to-male ratio in the population. The 1981 census showed the ratio to be 1,000 males per 935 females. The proportional representation of women has been declining since 1901.

``It is in this context that the protests against this selective abortion of female fetuses has taken on added urgency,'' says Sonal Shukla, a women's rights activist in Bombay. ``It is very dangerous, because if a girl or woman is ill treated or neglected in a family - resulting in their malnutrition, ill health, or even death - it is at least seen and known in the neighborhood.

``But what about amniocentesis and selective female infanticide?

``When a woman is just four months pregnant, she is taken to a doctor for a quick amniocentesis. This is followed by a quick abortion, if `needed.' No one need know. So there is no criticism - nor can any action be taken against a crime. Womb-to-womb oppression becomes, tragically enough, literally true.''

Ms. Patel says that women themselves are so mired in the existing value system that they often acquiesce in the practice. Besides, the women have few options to withstand the enormous social pressure brought on them to have sons.

``The problem is that most women know what it means to be an unwanted daughter,'' Patel says. ``Most hardly have any knowledge about the harm the tests can do to their bodies, especially in late pregnancy - to say nothing about the degradation of themselves and their sex by such practices. It is really a social adaptation to a difficult situation rather than a matter of choice by the women themselves.''

Women's civil rights groups are now demanding that the government ban the use of amniocentesis for prenatal sex determination and launch a campaign to publicize the fact that the sex of a child is determined by the father and not the mother.

They have also protested against treating this as a population control measure, as was suggested in some quarters. While the government has condemned the practice, it has done little to close clinics.

A middle-aged doctor in Bombay, who performed the tests in the past and has asked not to be identified, says she has stopped the practice now.

``A few years ago when this debate started in the press, I started thinking about the issue and finally realized that it was wrong to do sex-selective abortions. The practice cannot be defended in any way,'' she says.

``These tests and abortions should be banned legally, medically, and morally. Most doctors don't think seriously about the moral and ethical aspects of the issue - and in the process strengthen the ideas of discrimination in the society.''

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