Indian girls main target of abortions

Sydney Morning Herald
January 10, 2006

By Sarah Boseley in London

THE births of up to 10 million girls in India may have been prevented by selective abortion in the past 20 years, researchers say.

Half a million babies are aborted every year because they are girls, even though termination on the grounds of gender was outlawed in India in 1994, a study published online yesterday by the British medical journal The Lancet said.

Prabhat Jha from the University of Toronto and Rajesh Kumar at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India, and colleagues studied data from 1.1 million households and found that the likelihood of having a baby girl as a second or third child was significantly lower in households where there was no boy.

"We conservatively estimate that prenatal sex determination and selective abortion accounts for 0.5 million missing girls yearly," Professor Jha said.

"If this practice has been common for most of the past two decades since access to ultrasound became widespread, then a figure of 10 million missing female births would not be unreasonable."

Ultrasound, used to check a foetus's health, can also reveal its sex. The preference for boys has skewed the gender ratio in India, a nation of more than 1 billion people.

Many people in India regard daughters as a liability because they traditionally belong to future husbands' families, and the custom of paying dowry to the groom's family forces many families into debt.

The researchers found that the numbers of girls and boys born to couples who already had a son were about equal. But the adjusted sex ratio for a second girl where the first baby was a girl was 759 for every 1000 boys. Where families had two girls it was 719 for every 1000 boys.

In households where the mother had better education, it was significantly more likely that the birth of a girl would not be followed by the birth of another girl.

"To have a daughter is socially and emotionally accepted if there is a son, but a daughter's arrival is often unwelcome if the couple already have a daughter," Professor Shirish Sheth, of the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai, said in a commentary on the report.

The researchers said it had long been observed that fewer girls than boys are born in India, as in China.

It was possible that natural causes were responsible for some of the imbalance, but not the sort of ratios they found.

There was little reliable evidence on female infanticide and the number of stillbirths - which could mask infanticide - reported could not account for all the missing girls.

The study suggested that it was common for women, perhaps under pressure from families, to seek an ultrasound scan and then termination if the foetus was a girl.

Educated women had better access to scans and may be better able to afford them.

"Female infanticide of the past is refined and honed to a fine skill in this modern guise," Professor Sheth said.

The Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press


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