How Google helps you choose your ­unborn baby’s sex

Photo: Tehelka Archives
Photo: Tehelka Archives

A simple search on Google India for gender selection in the US leads to the website of The Fertility Institutes. The website, showcasing photograph of a happy couple kissing a baby boy, is the first search result. A blue colour banner on top of the website directs people to the family balancing service, wherein The Fertility Institutes is touted as a worldwide leader in gender-selection technology.

“If you want to be certain of your next child’s gender, no other method comes close to PGD (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis),” reads the website. PGD employs genetic profiling of the embryo before it is implanted in the mother’s womb. The website claims that though the clinics are currently located in the US and Mexico, they would soon be established in India and until then couples can avail the services of their international travel desk.

Similarly, search results for gender selection in the UAE and Cyprus lead to advertisement of clinics offering family balancing services in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Cyprus.

Two decades after declaring sex determination of an unborn baby a criminal offence, the government of India has not taken any action against technology majors such as Google, MSN and Yahoo. Google India has been hosting advertisements from clinics that promote sex determination in foreign destinations, thereby, directly connecting couples seeking sex determination to those who provide it abroad.

“The Internet offers highly targeted advertisements. Only those who want sex determination of the fetus, will find these advertisements,” says Sabu George, an academic-activist who has filed a public interest litigation against three most popular Internet search engines — Yahoo, Microsoft and Google — for violating the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics (PCPNDT) Act, 1994. He refers to the rich couples, who spend over Rs 1,00,000 on a trip abroad to determine the sex of their unborn baby. This scourge is ­particularly noteworthy in India and China where a male successor is much in demand. The denial of life through sex selective abortions is the harshest manifestation of gender discrimination in India.

Section 22 of the PCPNDT Act explicitly prohibits advertisement relating to pre-natal determination of sex. It states — no person or organisation shall publish, distribute, cause to be published or distributed any advertisement in any manner regarding facilites of pre-natal determination of sex available at any genetic counselling centre, genetic laboratory, genetic clinic or any other place.

Increasingly missing girls
Despite the law, the 2011 Census confirmed that the practice of sex-selective abortions had not only increased but spread geographically from north western India to the east and the south in over a decade. In 2001, 260 Indian districts had recorded a child sex ratio (number of girls for 1000 boys under the age of 6) of above 950; the number of such districts dropped to 155 in 2011.

Child sex ratio in India has been dropping since 1961, as demonstrated in every decadal Census: from 976 in 1961 to 964 in 1971; 962 in 1981; 945 in 1991; 927 in 2001; and finally to 914 in 2011.

According to estimates offered by professor Prabhat Jha, founding director of Centre for Global Heath Research, an independent not-for-profit organisation based in Toronto with offices in New Delhi and Bengaluru, selective abortions of girls rose from up to 2 million in the 1980s, to between 1.2 and 4.1 million in the 1990s, and between 3.1 and 6 million in the 2000s. In other words, nearly 6 million girls were aborted and denied life even before they were born.

An overlooked aspect of the sex-selective abortions in India is that the practice is concentrated in households with high education and wealth. Academics refer to this as the ‘prosperity effect’. According to Ravinder Kaur, professor of humanities and social science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, wealthy and propertied families select the sex of their successors to ensure that the wealth stays in the family. “These are the kind of families who have the wherewithal to travel abroad and the intention to keep the property in the family. In order to do so, they want sons,” she says.

In fact, the National Sample Survey data (1999-2000) shows that child sex ratios are more skewed among the prosperous groups — 804 girls for 1000 boys among top 5 percent rural households against 946 for the bottom 5 percent households; and 819 in the top 5 percent of urban households against 903 girls in the urban bottom 5 percent.

While the United States in North America and Cyprus in Europe have been a favourite destination for fertility or reproductive tourists — travellers from countries where the practice of sex selection is illegal, who intend to design the sex composition of their families. According to the an official at a New Delhi based medical tourism agency, who did not want to be identified, UAE has emerged as the nearest destination for affluent Indian families with a strong preference for sons.

“Wealthy Indian families are willing to travel as far as the US and Europe to determine the sex of their unborn babies. Couples come to me after they have conducted Internet search on clinics in these countries,” he says.

In March 2012, the Maharashtra supervisory board for the implementation of the PCPNDT Act had suggested tracking pregnant women travelling to Singapore, Dubai and Nepal to prevent sex determination. But the suggestion was never put into effect after it became apparent that it would be difficult to differentiate genuine tourists from those travelling with a motivation to select the gender of their unborn babies.

False commitment
Responding to George’s PIL in the Supreme Court in 2009, Google India had argued that advertisers agreed to an advertising policy contract. Further, it claimed that it had developed technologies to prevent advertisements from appearing on certain keywords including gender selection, gender determination, gender prediction etc. Five years after its response to the Supreme Court, Google is yet to implement its advertising policy in India and comply with the Indian law.

In January 2005, the Ministry of Home Affairs had raised this concern with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW). A letter sent by the MOHFW to the Cabinet Secretary and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology raised similar concerns in September 2009. While the ministries were discussing a course of action to block these advertisements, Google responded to George’s pil, after which the discussions on the subject ceased. The government considering the issue resolved. Google refused to comment for this sstory.

Like the UPA government, the current government has identified sex-selective abortions as a urgent concern that requires intervention. Regardless, no schemes or policies have been aimed at the rich and urban families, entirely ignoring the convergence of prosperity and anti-female child bias in India.


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