Thursday, March 30, 2006

Jailing of doctor in Indian sting operation highlights scandal of aborted girl fetuses

Randeep Ramesh:

An Indian doctor has been sentenced to two years in prison for revealing the sex of a foetus and agreeing to abort it, in a landmark ruling that campaigners say will boost efforts to end the practice which causes the loss of 500,000 female babies a year.

This is the first time medical professionals in India have been jailed, 12 years after a law outlawing ultrasound tests to determine the sex of an unborn child was passed. Families, especially better-off ones, have found ways round the law, with doctors giving clues to indicate the sex of the foetus, often using keywords to indicate a girl or boy.

Dr Anil Sabhani and his assistant, Kartar Singh, who also faces two years in jail, were caught in a sting operation in the northern state of Haryana five years ago. Both were fined 55,000 rupees (£3,500).

Officials used three pregnant women to test whether the clinic would carry out abortions based on sex selection. Dr Rekha Mishra, the government medical officer who supervised the sting, said "marked notes" had been recovered from the doctor's pockets and "we had video proof of Sabhani telling the decoy patients the sex of the foetus".

In evidence presented to the court, a video clip showed the doctor telling one woman that tests had revealed that she was carrying a "female foetus and it would be taken care of". Many of the original witnesses withdrew their testimony - presumably under pressure - delaying the trial. But the video evidence proved incontrovertible.

There is a strong cultural bias towards boys in Indian society, across all faiths. Many couples believe their family needs a son to carry on the family name and earn enough to look after them in old age. The dowry system, under which the bride's family pay cash to the groom, despite such payments being deemed illegal, also favours male children.

Like China, India has encouraged smaller families through financial incentives and campaigns calling for two children at most. Faced with such pressure, many families are turning to prenatal selection to ensure a son.

Swami Agnivesh of the Arya Samaj, a religious body which campaigns against female foeticide, said it was time for India to wake up and realise that its value system was elevating boys over girls. "This is rampant and we as a society cannot continue killing girls."

A recent survey in the Lancet looked at government data collected from a 1998 sample of Indian families in all districts of the country. Doctors concluded that one out of every 25 female foetuses is aborted, roughly 500,000 a year.

Population censuses in India show that the number of girls has been falling steadily for the past 20 years relative to the number of boys. For every 1,000 boys up to the age of six, the number of girls dropped from 962 in 1981 to 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. In developed countries women typically outnumber men with about 105 women for every 100 men.

The Lancet study also firmly established the link between India's sex ratio and sex-selective abortion. Researchers say the most likely reason for the fall in the female population is the use of ultrasound equipment, introduced in 1979 in India, which allowed parents to discover the gender of their child before birth.

Wealthier families are the biggest offenders - in South Delhi, one of the richest enclaves in India, almost one in six girl births are terminated.

Sabu George of the health thinktank the Centre for Women's Development Studies says if the situation is left unchecked there will be more than 1 million female foeticide deaths every year. "We really have not taken this seriously enough and not enough cases are being filed in the courts and not enough prosecutors are pursuing them."

Mr George added that although there were another few dozen cases making their way through the courts, the number of "sting operations" has dried up after a burst of government activity in 2001.

Activists say many of India's fertility clinics continue to offer a seemingly legitimate facade for a multimillion-pound racket, and that gender determination is still big business in India. Alarmingly, senior doctors in India have acknowledged that British doctors are increasingly referring women of Asian heritage to clinics in Delhi to have abortions.

"There are transfers from GPs in England to the gynaecologists in Delhi; that is a fact," Dr Puneet Bedi, a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at Indrapastha Apollo hospital in New Delhi, told the BBC this month. "It is an organised industry, an organised mafia among doctors."

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