An Indian court sentenced a doctor to two years in prison for using ultrasound tests to determine the sex of fetuses, the first physician convicted for flouting a law designed to end an epidemic of parents aborting female fetuses, officials said Wednesday.
Radiologist Anil Sabsani told a pregnant undercover investigator that she was carrying a female fetus, but it could be “taken care of,” officials said.
Indian families often see girls as burdens, and gender tests and abortions have led to a skewed ratio of males to females.
Female children frequently require large dowries — cash and gifts given to the groom’s relatives by a bride’s family — and often receive medical treatment and education after male children.
Some ultrasound clinics used to advertise with the slogan: “Pay 1,000 rupees now for a test, rather than 100,000 rupees later.”
Nationwide, the number of girls per 1,000 boys declined from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001, according to the 2001 national census. In wealthy Haryana state, the census showed 820 females for every 1,000 males.
The past two decades have seen the birth of nearly 10 million fewer girls than would otherwise have been expected, nearly all presumed by researchers to have been aborted, according to the Lancet, a leading British medical journal.
Abortions are legal in India but revealing the sex of a baby or aborting one because of its gender are not. The government outlawed prenatal sex-determination tests in 1994, but the law is widely flouted — especially among affluent and middle-class Indians — despite repeated official pledges of a crackdown.
After the 2001 census revealed the toll of female abortions, women’s rights groups launched a campaign to pressure authorities to act against doctors breaking the ultrasound law.
“In 12 years of the law being in force, this is the first time the government has taken action,” said Ranjana Kumari, an activist with the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research.
She criticized the court for not handing down longer sentences Tuesday, but added that: “We hope Tuesday’s judgment will act as a deterrent for other doctors.”
Medical authorities acting on a tip in 2001 sent an undercover team posing as husband and wife to Sabsani’s office in Palwal, a city about 95 miles south of New Delhi, said R.C. Aggarwal, Haryana’s chief medical officer.
After examining the pregnant undercover officer, Sabsani said he would reveal the gender of her fetus if he was paid another $35. After being paid, he told the woman the fetus was female, adding: “But that can be taken care of.”
It was not clear how many sex-determination tests Sabsani had conducted, Aggarwal said.
“However, we had received complaints about him, which is why we set up the appointment,” he said.
Medical journal: 500,000 girls ‘missing’ yearly
Aggarwal said there were cases pending against three other doctors on similar charges in Haryana courts. He was not certain when those cases would go to trial.
The Lancet concluded that 500,000 girls were “missing” annually — most likely the result of abortions — giving them the figure of 10 million over 20 years. The researchers called the estimate conservative.
Sabsani’s assistant also was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday, and both defendants were fined $125, said Sushma Saini, an information officer for the Haryana state government.