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RIGHTS-INDIA: Hi-Tech Beats Sex Selection Ban

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Dec 21 2009 (IPS) - When a magistrate in the western port city of Mumbai convicted two doctors in November for advertising sex selection services, it showed determination to enforce laws aimed at stopping gender determination tests linked to the mass abortion of female foetuses.

But activists, fighting a practice that is seriously skewing India’s gender ratio, say that the Mumbai convictions have only a token value. For one thing it is impossible to stop the advertisements on Internet. For another, legislation has seriously lagged behind medical technology.

”First it was the misuse of ultrasound to determine the sex of foetuses in the 1980s; and then came high-definition ultrasound which improved accuracy and affordability, and now you have techniques like pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and sperm separation that are impossible to police,” said Sabu George Mathew, a veteran campaigner against female foeticide.

Mathew, who has a public interest litigation pending in the Supreme Court seeking direction to the government to have websites and search engines that promote sex determination tests and sex selection blocked, told IPS that there appeared to be an attempt to create a market for such services over the Internet.

”Unfortunately the Pre-Conception and PreNatal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act of 2003, which banned sex determination tests and their promotion through ads, has driven the business from publications and hoardings into the Internet,” Mathew said. ”Unlike in countries like China, it is not easy to get websites blocked in India.”

What landed the Mumbai doctors, Chhaya Tated and Shubhangi Adkar, in jail was the brazenness with which they advertised their services in a weekly magazine, offering “special treatment” for couples who wished to have a boy child.

Magistrate R. V. Jambkar sentenced the two female doctors to three-year jail terms for violating the PNDT Act, which specifically prohibits advertisements relating to pre-conception and prenatal sex determination by any person, organisation, genetic counseling centre or clinic that has an ultrasound scanner or other technology to determine the sex of an unborn child.

But the helplessness of the government when it came to ads on the Internet became apparent in a demand made in Parliament on Dec. 2 by Brinda Karat, an opposition legislator belonging to the Marxist Communist Party of India (CPI-M) and prominent women’s rights activist, to have the chief of Google in India arrested for violating the PNDT Act.

Random searches on Google and other popular search engines like Yahoo readily turn up ads that offer a variety of pre-conception and pre-fertilisation gender determination or selection services.

For example, the United States-based Baby Gender Mentor Corp. offers a kit and step-by-step instructions to determine, through blood samples, the sex of an unborn child. Urobiologics, another U.S. company, advertises ‘gender planning before pregnancy’ and ‘gender detection after pregnancy’ through urine samples.

MicroSort, also U.S.-based, goes a step further and undertakes to separate sperms that produce boys from those that result in girls before fertilisation of the egg in vitro and implantation.

“The chief of the Google India site should be arrested and prosecuted immediately and the Google site banned,” Karat demanded. She said Google was ignoring earlier warnings issued by the government and expressed concern for the declining sex ratio, with an estimated 900,000 girls going “missing” each year as result of biased attitudes against female offspring.

A guarded Google statement that followed Karat’s complaint said: “In India, we do not allow ads for the promotion of prenatal gender determination or preconception sex selection. We take applicable legal requirements extremely seriously and take prompt and effective action in case a violation is reported to us.”

India is only one of a handful of countries where sex selection is illegal and it is nearly impossible to interfere with Internet ads that are meant for couples in other countries where it is legal and where a variety of preferences that go beyond sex selection are catered for.

India’s laws were the result of a vigorous campaign by rights and gender activists, who pinpointed the coming together of traditional preferences for male offspring with affordable modern technology in the shape of ultrasound machines that allowed couples to quickly determine the sex of an unborn child.

In January 2006, the British medical journal ‘The Lancet’ published a study which said that as many as 10 million female foetuses may have been aborted in India, in the preceding two decades, and attributed this development to the advent of the ultrasound machine.

That declining sex ratio first became apparent in India’s decennially conducted census for 2001, which revealed that only 927 girls were being born for every 1,000 boys, down from the 962 girls per 1,000 boys in 2081.

While the census figures and reports like Lancet’s and civil society activism goaded the government to act against people violating the PNDT Act, technology has moved on to introduce more refined ways of sex determination and selection at the pre-conception and pre-fertilisation stages.

“As more and more couples access technology globally, couples can readily choose a child of the desired sex and characteristics,” says Dr N. B. Sarojini, chief of SAMA (‘equality’), a major resource centre for women and health that is based in the capital.

“In recent years techniques such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, originally meant to screen for genetic defects, have been openly and extensively used to selectively screen out female embryos,” Sarojini told IPS.

“Techniques such as MicroSort used for sperm sorting already have a market worth an estimated 400 million U.S. dollars in the U.S. market alone,” Sarojini said. “Couples from around the world spend around 19,000 dollars in U.S. clinics for gender selection treatment, and these couples are mainly from countries like India, where selecting the sex of the foetus is illegal.”

Much of the business is also occurring at home in India, where there is no dearth of fertility clinics ready to help create male embryos ‘in vitro’ before implanting them into the prospective mother. “This works out easier than waiting 16 weeks to determine the sex of the foetus using ultrasound and then aborting it,” a doctor who offers in vitro services told IPS on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, using ultrasound to determine sex and aborting unwanted female foetuses continue to be popular because of the simple fact that abortion is legal in India and accepted as part of ‘family planning’ to limit population size.

Sarojini believes that the government should focus efforts on improving the status of the girl child rather than making the odd arrest. “The fact remains that women, even if they are well educated and employed, prefer to have a son, since it improves their standing in society—this must change,” she said.

Preference for the male child is linked to the dowry system and patriarchal customs that favour males when it comes to bequeathing property. Hindus also believe that smooth passage into the next world can be ensured only when a son lights the funeral pyre of the parent.

The government has not been entirely unresponsive. In the state of Delhi, which houses the national capital, the local government introduced from the start of 2008 the ‘Ladli’ (darling girl child) scheme, under which doles are being given out to couples with girl children born to them.

Under the scheme the government pays out 10,000 rupees (214 dollars) at the birth of every girl child and follows that up with additional payments totaling 25,000 rupees (535 dollars) if the girl completes her primary education.

The stated aim of the scheme is to “enhance the social status of girl children in society as well as in the family, ensure proper education to make girls self-reliant, ensure economic security and protect girls from discrimination and deprivation.”

In November, the Delhi state government claimed that the scheme was already showing results and, citing birth registration data, said that the gender ratio had improved from 820 girls born for every 1,000 boys in 2005 in the state to 848 in 2008.

But Mathew said the figures and inferences were unreliable and that the problem was far more complex and deep-rooted than could be solved by schemes of this type.

“Right now we are up against highly organised groups that are trying to enlarge the already highly profitable international market for sex selection through ads on the Internet,” Mathew told IPS.

“Not only are Indian couples going abroad to avail themselves of sex selection services that are legal there, but couples are coming into this country to take advantage of the lax laws and the advanced, affordable medical services available in India,” said Mathew.

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