‘Sex selection’ blood test will wreak havoc in India

A "sex selection" blood test that will allow prospective parents to learn the gender of their unborn child simply by drawing a little blood from the mother will no doubt prove disastrous for India.

It's a bitter truth. Hospitals for the poor may be bereft of facilities and overrun with rats, but when it comes to aborting baby girls India always gets the latest technology.

A team led by Dr Hyun Mee Ryu at Cheil General Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, found that various ratios of two enzymes which can be extracted from a pregnant mother's blood indicate the baby's gender as early as five or six weeks, according to the Times of India. But the team also warned that the test "might promote the potential for sex selection. Therefore, there should be careful consideration about the use of this analytical tool in clinical situations."

Fat chance, as far as India is concerned.

The government's efforts to police the use of ultrasound machines for sex selection have been a massive failure. And a blood test will likely vastly increase the number of laboratories it needs to monitor. Moreover, a number of labs already have procedures in place to send blood samples abroad for other tests — a profitable sideline where sex selection would present a huge opportunity.

And technology has already taken its toll. Last week, India admitted failure in its attempt to block web sites that advertize such procedures (a bad sign for its efforts to censor Google and Facebook!).

Prejudice and cultural practices like giving dowry — which can bankrupt a family with daughters and enrich one with sons — have resulted in a gender genocide in India. And the problem has not gotten any better as the country gets richer or (superficially) more Westernized.

As Hanna Ingber Win reported for GlobalPost last year: A natural sex ratio is 105 boys born for every 100 girls. This is to adjust for girls’ slightly higher likelihood of surviving than boys. However, India’s 2011 census showed that the sex ratio for children under age seven is 109 to 100. While not ostensibly a large difference, that ratio equates to 7 million fewer girls than boys under the age of 7 in India, which is home to 1.2 billion people.

At the same time, those who are the best poised to access the new blood test are the very people driving the trend, with higher incomes and greater literacy actually driving the trend:

A recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet stated that sex-selective abortions are up sharply during the last two decades, and most of the Indian population now lives in states where sex selection is common. It estimates that between 4 and 12 million abortions have occurred in the last three decades in India as a result of sex selection. The study said that women from wealthier and more educated families are more likely to have a sex-selective abortion than women from poorer families, presumably because they can afford to use the technology.

India has tried everything, it seems. There are government incentives for having daughters. Dowry is illegal. Using ultrasound machines to determine the gender of an unborn child is a jailing offence. But nothing has made a dent. Perhaps it's time to consider an out of the box sex selection program that helps couples to have a boy, provided they have a girl first, and a vasectomy after.

That would solve two problems in one fell swoop, if somebody could make it work.

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