New threats to fan female foeticide…
By Maxwell Pereira
maxwelpereir@gmail.com

The unholy spectre of Illegal sex selection to prevent or destroy female offspring - at the pre-conception stage or the pre-natal, just doesn't seem to stop haunting. Even as the country is battling to remedy its skewed female to male sex ratio, newer onslaughts are afoot through technology driven procedures available in cyber space, which the warped Indian brain is quick to learn about and adapt to its situation and ulterior aims. All in an effort to circumvent existing laws prohibiting sex selection for purpose of eliminating the very possibility of a girl child being born.

In early July the Indian news media stumbled on to the increasing practice among Indian parents to access through Internet facilities available in the USA that guaranteed a male issue even at the pre-conception stage. A process based on PGD - the preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or the ICSI - Intra Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection technique that could make sex determination of the child possible at the conception level by taking one healthy sperm for fertilisation of the egg with freedom to chose Y over X chromosome. New techniques developed in America, which combined the spectacular advances in molecular genetics and assisted reproductive technology (ART) - to enable physicians to identify genetic diseases in the embryo, prior to implantation, before the pregnancy is established.

But PGD was developed for patients - especially those resorting to intrauterine insemination or In Vitro Fertilization - who were at risk of having children with serious genetic disorders, such as haemophilia, which often discouraged them having their own biological children. In genuine cases, PGD also offered parents to balance their family with equal number of girl and boy children.

For the Indian community in America though, this technique came handy to perpetuate even while on alien soil their ancient prejudices. The obsession for son preference against a background of patriarchal social framework (to carry the family name forward, support in old age and for performing last rites); the girl child invariably relegated to secondary status being ultimately 'paraya dhan' leading to economic considerations arising out of the tag on daughters as a liability translating into the curse of dowry, etc. Prejudices, under bizarre conditions that conspired to promote female foeticide! They latched on to PGD as a godsend, to eventually tutor and educate their kith and kin back home in India too.

Quick on the uptake to realise its commercial potential, websites of fly-by-nite operators sprung up in the US offering the facility to Indian couples across the globe - and true to form with enough gullible or eager Indians to bite the bait for dubious use at the Indian end. Websites like www.meditest.com, Tell Me Pink or Blue, GenSelect and www.babyzendormentor.com which rural Punjabis quickly transformed to 'jantarmantar', and so on - offering home pregnancy kits for a dollar price translating to around Rs.15,000 or less. Facilities to pack a blood sample to a lab in the US to know the baby's gender in a few days.

Protagonists of sex selection attempt to justify the practice claiming gender selection has been a quest of couples for as far back as recorded history allows. That drawings from prehistoric times suggest our earliest ancestors were investigating sex selection efforts. Of evidence in later history too of intense interest in sex selection by early Asian (Chinese), Egyptian and Greek cultures, followed by documented scientific efforts beginning in the 1600's to sway chances of achieving a pregnancy by a variety of methods. Finally, about research and work carried out in the 1980's and 90's providing possible methods for obtaining a desired pregnancy gender outcome ranging from excellent to the virtually guaranteed.

But such are criminally remiss though of ignoring the impact of the declining sex ratio. That it reflects gross discrimination against one sex within society, confirming that in India girls are less wanted. That the practice demeans women by looking on daughters as a burden because of the dowry to be paid for them and because any investment in them - for their nutrition, education, health, general well-being etc will not help the natal family's future security.

The increasing deficit of girls is also creating a social imbalance within society, with pockets in India where very few girls are born. Resulting in no brides for the burgeoning son population, with the prospect of having to import girls from other regions. Resulting in social problems of purchasing young girls from poor regions, women treated as commodities, contributing to further fall in their status in society. This can only lead to further exploitation and abuse of women, violence against them, increased trafficking and sex trade, and re-emergence of practices like polyandry. Letting the cycle of discrimination and gender inequities to continue, fuelled now by newer and more accurate technologies for sex selection.

Alarmed over this latest threat, the Union Health Ministry has addressed the Ministry of Information Technology through the Home Ministry to initiate measures to ban or block these websites. The exact implications and the dimensions of the impact on Indian society of this new menace need study. Especially when the battle is on against the nation-wide plague of illegal sex selection through the ultrasound facility - that throws up gory cases of the Patran type with scores of aborted foetuses in doctors' backyard wells!

While the new threats would need the attention of the expert medical fraternity to suggest an appropriate course of action, the aspect of effecting dollar payment over internet, or through relatives abroad, would also need examination. There is need for the Ministries of Science & Technology, of Communications and Information Technology, of Finance and Revenue (Income Tax) to be sensitive to the issue and be involved.

28.08.2006: Copyright © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sector-23, Gurgaon-122017 Tel: 0124-5111025 /026 : website: http://www. maxwellpereira.com; email: mfjpkamath@gmail.com

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