Sunday, August 21, 2011
Pink or blue
A new test makes it possible to tell the sex of foetus at seven weeks – but should we be using it?
All of us in India are familiar with those signs that hang in ultrasound clinics and hospitals and warn expectant parents that it is illegal to enquire about the sex of their baby. Sex determination – either through ultrasound or amniocentesis – is illegal in India, where the practice of female foeticide is endemic.
But clearly, many people manage to get around this little legal hurdle, or else the male:female ratio in so many areas of our country would not be so skewed. Some of them go to fly-by-night operators who have no ethical problems with telling them the sex of the baby; or organising an abortion if it’s a baby girl that’s gestating in Mummy’s tummy. Some go to otherwise reputable clinics that use code words to convey the sex: Jai Mata Di if it’s a girl and Jai Shri Ram if it’s a boy, according to one account. And yet others have a ‘family doctor’ or a doctor in the family who can tell them whether it’s ‘pink’ or ‘blue’.
Whatever the methods adopted, the end is invariably the same. The female foetus is aborted. Sometimes this happens in the second or third pregnancy, when the parents are desperate for a boy to ‘complete’ their family. And on occasion, it even happens in the first pregnancy with families who don’t want to be ‘burdened’ with a girl child. And shockingly, this kind of sex selection takes place even among educated, middle-class or even upper-class families who really should know better.
Well, these people are in luck because a new medical test now makes sex determination even easier. A test has been developed which can tell you the sex of the foetus with about 95 per cent accuracy at seven weeks. A blood sample of the expectant mother is taken at the time and tested for the presence of the Y chromosome. If it is present the baby is a boy. If it isn’t then the baby is probably a girl (though it could also mean that there was no fetal DNA in the sample).
In the West, this test is used when there is a danger of a gender-specific disease being passed on the baby. For instance, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy only affects boys, so a girl foetus would not be at risk and further intrusive testing is not required. But tellingly, some companies refuse to sell this test in India and China for fear that it will be misused in countries where there is a strong cultural preference for a boy.
I have no doubt that were this test readily available in India more people would end up aborting female foetuses rather than end up being ‘stuck’ with a daughter. In the view of people like these, a daughter is nothing more than an endless strain on their resources. You first spend money bringing her up, educating her, making her presentable enough to make a good marriage – at which point you have to liquidate all your savings to give her a grand wedding and a spectacular dowry. It’s a mug’s game, isn’t it?
How much better to have a son, who will repay the investment you make on his education by supporting you in your old age? Not to mention, the nice, big dowry he will score when he finally gets married – and brings a girl into your home to play general drudge, baby-making machine, and additional source of income all rolled into one.
Well, that’s the theory, at least. It’s another matter that these days it is difficult to find a bride in such communities because, by some remarkable twist of fate, everyone just has sons in the family. And that many of these sons have little time or money – or even the inclination – to support aged parents either financially or emotionally.
Which brings me to my question for today: should we allow Indians to use this test to determine the sex of the foetus, given that anyone who asks for such a test would likely abort a girl child at the earliest?
Well, at the risk of sounding heartless and incurring the wrath of many, I have to admit that my answer to that question is, tragically, yes. Before the brickbats start in earnest, perhaps I should explain why I feel this way.
Let’s assume for a moment that you deny such sex-determination tests to expectant parents, thus ensuring that they had daughters whether they liked them or not. What kind of a life do you suppose this little girl would have to look forward to, with parents who would have gladly killed her in the womb?
Do you think she will loved and cherished? I think not. Do you believe that she will be valued for herself? No, she will probably be reminded at every turn that she is not that longed-for son. Will she be raised with every advantage that money can buy? On the contrary, every expense incurred on her account will be grudged.
Will she be resented as an extra drag on the family’s resources? You bet she will. Will she be mistreated and regarded as a burden? Without a doubt. Will her parents make it clear that they wish she’d never been born? All the time.
Now why would you wish that kind of life on anyone? I know I wouldn’t. What I would wish for is a cultural change in our society so that we value all children, regardless of gender, equally. And I wish that change comes about sooner rather than later.