TORONTO, Canada — A new study is fueling debate on whether Indian immigrants in Canada are practicing sex selection by aborting female fetuses.
The peer-reviewed study found that Indian-born women in Ontario were significantly more likely than Canadian-born women to give birth to boys if they already had one child.
“Our findings raise the possibility that couples originating from India may be more likely than Canadian-born couples to use prenatal sex determination and terminate a second or subsequent pregnancy if the fetus is female,” concludes the study, published mid-April in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
In India, sex selection through abortion of female fetuses is a practice the government has long been fighting. In Canada, the issue has put a spotlight on an ethnic community of almost 1 million people, and has emerged at a time when some members of the Conservative government are trying to severely restrict abortion, if not ban it outright.
“My concern is that [the study] paints the entire community as if all are practicing female feticide,” said Kripa Sekhar, executive director of Toronto’s South Asian Women’s Center. “That’s certainly not the case. If it’s happening, it’s a small minority.”
The study looked at 766,688 babies born (not counting twins) between 2002 and 2007 in the province of Ontario. The mothers were born in Canada, Europe, India, China, the rest of East Asia, Pakistan and South Korea.
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It found that the ratio of male to female babies born is particularly striking when an Indian-born woman already has two children. In that case, the third-child ratio was 136 boys to 100 girls. In comparison, Canadian born women had a third-child ratio that matched worldwide averages — 105 boys to 100 girls.
The only other ethnic group the study found with uncommonly high male to female birth ratios was South Koreans. But the study’s authors say the sample of Korean mothers was too small for conclusions to be drawn.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Joel Ray, a clinical scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, has said it’s highly unlikely the third-child ratio result was due to chance. But the authors caution they have no way of knowing if it is the result of sex selection by abortion or by in-vitro fertilization.
“In the absence of another plausible explanation, male selection remains the most likely reason for the higher male-female ratios,” the study says.
In Canada, abortions are paid for by government medical insurance when performed in hospitals. New Brunswick is the only province that won’t pay for them if they’re preformed in a private clinic.
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The federal government banned in-vitro sex selection in 2004. However, at least one American company in Washington State, the Washington Center for Reproductive Medicine, has advertised the service in an Indo-Canadian publication in the Vancouver area.
The Ontario study confirms an earlier one that used census data to arrive at similar results about the preponderance of boys to women of Indian descent who have a third child.
In January, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal strongly denounced female feticide.
“Should female feticide in Canada be ignored because it is a small problem localized to minority ethnic groups? No,” Dr. Rajendra Kale, the journal’s interim editor in chief, said in his editorial.
“Small numbers cannot be ignored when the issue is about discrimination against women in its most extreme form. This evil devalues women,” he added.
Kale proposed banning doctors from giving ultrasound information on the sex of fetuses before 30 weeks of pregnancy. That’s the cut-off for unquestioned abortions in Canada.
“Postponing the transmission of such information is a small price to pay to save thousands of girls in Canada,” wrote Kale, who is originally from India. “If Canada cannot control this repugnant practice, what hope do India and China have of saving millions of women?”
The Ontario study added to debate around a private member’s bill introduced in the House of Commons last week. Conservative Member of Parliament Stephen Woodworth, who opposes abortion, wants a review of the law declaring that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of birth.
Wary of reopening the explosive abortion issue, Woodworth’s boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said he opposes the bill. And opposition MPs have accused Woodworth of launching “a full frontal assault on a woman’s right to choose.”
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Some wonder why abortion for reasons of gender causes more outrage than abortion for reasons of disabilities. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, meanwhile, argues that a woman’s right to choose a safe abortion is the primary concern. It argues the root cause of female feticide — the lack of value and respect given to girls and women — should be tackled through education.
Faced with the Ontario study, many in Toronto’s large Indo-Canadian community have recoiled into frightened silence, said Sekhar, who emigrated from southern India in 1990 and has two daughters.
“With the South Asian community, the moment something like this happens, everybody stops talking,” she said in an interview. “They’re so afraid of saying anything.”
Sekhar, whose center helps South Asian women integrate, said she’d like to see more conclusive evidence on female feticide.
“There’s a responsibility on the community to ask the hard questions, to hold one another accountable and to say, ‘If this is indeed the case, it must stop,’” she added.
In some parts of India, Sekhar said pressures on a woman to have boys includes carrying on the family name, the inheritance of property, and the practice of dowry — money and gifts demanded by the groom from the bride’s family.
But India, Sekhar notes, isn’t alone: “The problem is a global culture that looks at men as having more power, more dominance and more privilege.”