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The odds of having a boy in Canada are nearly 50-50, except in certain communities where males are especially prized, research has shown. Now a new study suggests the use of prenatal sex selection is being passed to the next generation – the Canadian-born children of South Asian immigrants.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on Thursday, found a higher-than-expected ratio of boys to girls born to a sub-section of Canadian-born women of South Asian ancestry in Ontario – those who had two previous daughters and at least one abortion.

Lead author Susitha Wanigaratne of the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto said the results challenge the assumption that women born in Canada are not inclined to hold onto the gender biases of their immigrant parents.

“Despite the fact that they are often very highly educated and work outside the home and have really great careers, they still feel this responsibility and need to have a son and carry on those traditional responsibilities,” says Ms. Wanigaratne, a social epidemiologist and post-doctoral fellow.

The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, analyzed administrative data, including birth, immigration and citizenship records, to examine abortion rates and the sex ratios of babies born to women in Ontario. It used an algorithm developed at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences to recognize mothers with South Asian surnames, and looked at nearly 59,700 mothers of South Asian descent who gave birth in Ontario between 1993 and 2014. The researchers compared data for several groups of women, including immigrants of South Asian descent (or first-generation), Canadian-born women of South Asian descent whose parents were immigrants (or second-generation), and Canadian-born women of non-South Asian ethnicity.

Generally, the sex ratio at birth is expected to be between 103 and 107 boys to 100 girls. But among first-generation and second-generation mothers in the study, those who had two previous daughters and at least one abortion were more likely to have a boy as their third child. Within this subset of second-generation mothers, 280 boys were born for every 100 girls for the third live birth. (The actual number of suspected sex-selective abortions in this group is relatively small. In total, there were 289 second-generation mothers who had two previous daughters and went on to have a third child. Of these women, 57 had a prior abortion between the second and third children.)

For immigrants who were born in a South Asian country, and who had two previous daughters and at least one abortion, 246 boys were born for every 100 girls at the third live birth. An elevated sex ratio was not found among second-generation mothers who had no prior abortions.

While these skewed ratios do not prove the mothers underwent sex-selective abortions, Ms. Wanigaratne says the fact that more boys than girls were born after a woman had at least one abortion does suggest prenatal sex-selection likely occurred.

The study was co-authored by representatives from non-profit community organizations serving South Asian women, including Manvir Bhangu, founder and executive director of the Brampton, Ont.-based Laadliyan Celebrating Daughters. Through her organization, which promotes gender equality among the South Asian community, and through her own social circles, Ms. Bhangu says she often encounters women who continue to face pressure from their families to have sons.

Male children are often the ones who carry on the family name, inherit the family property, and are expected to take care of their parents in old age, she says.

“These biases are deeply rooted in our culture,” Ms. Bhangu says.

She says some ultrasound clinics in Brampton, which has a large South Asian population, have adopted bans on revealing the sex of the fetus to the mother, but there are ways women can get around such policies. She knows of women, for instance, who have left Canada to have sex-selective abortions in India, where they may face less social scrutiny or where it may be easier for others to convince them to terminate a pregnancy.

She says she believes that, with time, the attitudes within her community can shift.

Ms. Bhangu says that while the actual number of individuals practicing prenatal sex selection in Canada is very small, it points to a larger problem of gender inequality.

“Obviously, not everyone is to blame here. Not everyone is taking part in sex selection, but it is definitely the reality,” she says.

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