msnbc.com news services
updated 5/24/2011 1:30:10 PM ET 2011-05-24T17:30:10

More and more Indian families with one girl are aborting subsequent pregnancies when prenatal tests show another female is on the way, according to a new study published Tuesday.

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The decline in the number of girls is more pronounced in richer and better educated households, according to research in the medical journal Lancet.

In India, there is a huge cultural preference for boys in large part because of the enormous expense in marrying off girls and paying elaborate dowries. Officials have acknowledged that current laws have proved inadequate at combatting the widening sex ratio gap.

The study said that between 4 million and 12 million girls are thought have been aborted from 1980 to 2010.

Raw data from India's census released in March showed 914 girls under age 6 for every 1,000 boys. A decade ago, many were horrified when the ratio was 927 to 1,000.

Researchers studied census data and government surveys of more than 250,000 births to conclude that gap is even wider in families that already have a girl.

Missing second born daughters
The missing daughters occurred mostly in families which already had a first born daughter. Although the preference for boys runs across Indian society, the abortions were more likely to be carried out by educated parents who were aware of ultrasound technology and who could afford abortions.

"The number of girls being aborted is increasing and may have reached 12 million with the lower estimate of 4 million over the last three decades," said lead author Professor Prabhat Jha at the Center for Global Health Research in Toronto, Canada. Other researchers included the former Registrar General of India, Jayant K. Banthia.

"The logic is families are saying if Nature gives us a first boy, then we don't do anything. But if Nature gives a first girl then perhaps we would consider ultrasound testing and selective abortion for the subsequent children," he told Reuters in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Jha said the preference for boys in Indian society remains firmly in place and the reason why abortions of female fetuses were occurring more among richer and educated parents was because they could afford to do so.

"The preference for boys doesn't differ between rich and poor, it is similar. But the means to ensure a boy is greater among the educated and the rich," Jha said.

Those numbers show that a 1996 law that bans testing for the gender of a fetus has been largely ineffective, the study said.

In families whose first child was a boy, there was no decrease in the girl to boy ratio for the second child, the study said.

"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," the authors suggested.

According to the current CIA "World Factbook," the United States has a birth ratio of 955 girls per 1,000 boys. In China, where families with a strong preference for boys sometimes resort to aborting their baby girls, there was a birth ratio of 885 girls per 1,000 boys.

The factbook puts India's birth ratio at 893 girls to 1,000 boys.

India tracks gender ratios for children under the age of 6 but not at birth.

Jha and his colleagues said abortion of girls in India was different from the situation in China, where a one-child policy results in even abortions of the first girl.

"In India, we don't see that yet and there is no required one-child policy. But the concern is that if urban women decide they only want one child, then this practice may spread from second or third child to the first, so this is a future risk that we have identified," Jha said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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