May 26, 2011 — As wealth and literacy have increased across India, so has the practice of aborting female fetuses because of cultural preferences for boys, according to a study published in The Lancet, the New York Times reports. The study estimates that four million to 12 million sex-selective abortions of girls occurred in India over the past three decades, despite a law prohibiting the use of ultrasounds or other technologies to determine the sex of the fetus. The practice is most prevalent among women in higher-income and better-educated families, who are more likely to have the means to obtain an ultrasound and abortion (Yardley, New York Times, 5/24).
Earlier this month, census figures revealed the disproportionately high rate of boys in India, reflecting abortion of female fetuses and neglect of girls, sometimes leading to their deaths. According to the preliminary data, there are 914 girls younger than age six for every 1,000 boys, down from 927 girls per 1,000 boys 10 years ago (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/6).
The new study found that the ratio of girls to boys was most skewed in wealthier families with highly educated mothers, particularly when the first born child was a girl. When the firstborn was a boy, the ratio of girls to boys was more even (Fox, National Journal, 5/24). According to the AP/Wall Street Journal, the huge cultural preference for boys is based in part on the expense of marrying girls and paying for their dowries (AP/Wall Street Journal, 5/25). Additionally, in Hindu funeral rituals, only men may perform last rites, though many Indian Muslims prefer sons as well. Unlike women, sons can inherit property and carry on the family name.
Prabhat Jha -- lead author of the study and director of the Centre for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto -- said that sex-selective abortion has expanded throughout the country because of the increasingly widespread use of ultrasound equipment. "This is really a phenomenon of the educated and the wealthy that we are seeing in India," Jha said (New York Times, 5/24). The authors also noted that they "did not yet see any clear evidence of selective abortion of firstborn female fetuses, ... partly because India does not enforce a one-child policy, which led to the selective abortion of firstborn female fetuses in China" (National Journal, 5/24).
The 1996 law banning the use of technologies to determine the sex has been largely ineffective (AP/Wall Street Journal, 5/25). Few medical practitioners who violated the law are prosecuted, and there is limited regulation of private health care providers who offer abortion, according to the Times (New York Times, 5/24).
The authors wrote, "Reliable monitoring and reporting of sex ratios by birth order in each of India's districts could be a reasonable part of any efforts to curb the remarkable growth of selective abortions of girls" (AP/Wall Street Journal, 5/25).