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A girl amongst the audience looks on during an event against female feticide organized by Delhi Commission for Women, in New Delhi, India. (GURINDER OSAN)
A girl amongst the audience looks on during an event against female feticide organized by Delhi Commission for Women, in New Delhi, India. (GURINDER OSAN)

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Land of the rising son Add to ...

Son preference has ancient roots in India – as it does in many other countries. The earliest, colonial-era censuses from this region show skewed gender ratios. Until the 1970s, girls were eliminated through infanticide and neglect. Then, as now, women faced immense pressure to produce sons and undertook regular fasts or nightly temple visits in their quest for male children. Then ultrasound technology was introduced here in 1975 – at first, in an effort to diagnose fetal abnormalities and illnesses.

But almost immediately it began to be used for sex selection: a high-tech replacement for offerings made at the temple offering. Soon, there were newspaper advertisements offering pregnant women and their families the test: “Spend 500 rupees now to save 500,000 rupees later,” by avoiding a dowry.

Ultrasound technology kept getting better, and cheaper. Soon there were mobile clinics, which travelled among villages that lacked even clean water or electricity, to offer fetal scanning, and abortions. The mobile clinics performed a scan for as little as $12 – which can be a month's earnings for a landless agricultural labourer, but is viewed as a wise investment compared with the risk of an unwanted daughter.

In 1994, after sustained campaigns by women's-rights activists, the government made it illegal both to use ultrasound to determine gender and to tell a parent what the gender is. The new law said all ultrasound equipment must be registered (with the hypothetical goal of auditing all those who provided the service based on the gender ratio of babies born to their clients) and threatened doctors who did sex determination with up to five years in prison.

But investigations of doctors, who form a powerful political lobby here, have been exceedingly rare – usually they follow “stings” by journalists – and fewer than a dozen doctors have been convicted. Meanwhile, it is common knowledge among families which doctors will disclose gender, either directly or by handing parents pink or blue candy, pens or booties after the scan.

The situation has become even more complicated today, with many of India's almost totally unregulated and ubiquitous fertility clinics offering gender determination of embryos – creating male embryos to implant in women who want to skip the hassle of getting pregnant, carrying a fetus for 16 weeks and then aborting. This practice was outlawed in 2004 – but is offered openly in three fertility clinics visited by The Globe and Mail.

In 2007, a wealthy Mumbai couple went to court to argue that the law against sex determination infringed on their right to “balance their family” and have a son, in addition to the two daughters they had. They said they were not going to “destroy” a female fetus, but rather use technology to “select” a male embryo. (The court ruled against them.)

In addition, sex-selection kits (of varying effectiveness) are now widely available in India for about $300, sold over the Internet from countries where they are legal.

In conversations in cafés and other social settings, 13 affluent women in Delhi confirmed that they were told the gender of their fetus by doctors at upscale private clinics; while some said they were seeking a different “family balance,” none would discuss whether she had broken the law and asked to terminate a pregnancy. (While the statistics show the practice is widespread, there is surprising reluctance to discuss it, which may indicate a change in attitude to sex selection.)

Two women said doctors who do not ask questions about the reason for a termination charge about three times as much – $600 – for performing the service.

There are many reasons Indian parents still feel they must have sons. When a Hindu or Sikh parent dies, a son must carry out the last rites; if not, the very devout believe they won't reach heaven. Sons are perceived to carry on family lineage in a way daughters cannot. They also live with their parents all their lives, and care for them when old.

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