As a South Asian woman this is depressing but not surprising. All women need to unite and speak out against this hatred.
Female feticide: is it happening in Ontario?
“Our findings raise the possibility that couples originating from India may be more likely than Canadian-born couples to use prenatal sex determination," the study reads.
JACK LAKEY/TORONTO STAR
Jennifer Yang Staff Reporter
A new study released Monday provides a first look at whether women from certain ethnic communities are practising sex-selective abortion in Ontario — and found “concerning trends” to suggest female feticide is happening.
Researchers caution, however, that the study is inconclusive and far more investigation needs to be done.
The St. Michael’s Hospital study analyzed 766,688 births in Ontario and found mothers born in South Korea and India were “significantly” more likely to have boys for their second child.
When it came to having a third child, the male-to-female ratio grew even more skewed for Indian-born mothers, who had 136 boys for every 100 girls.
By comparison, the ratio for Canadian-born mothers was 105 boys for every 100 girls — regardless of whether it was their first, second or third-born.
“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,” reads the study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
The study goes on to say that “in the absence of another plausible explanation, male selection remains the most likely reason for the higher male-female ratios.”
But in an interview with the TorontoStar, lead researcher Dr. Joel G. Ray cautioned against jumping to any hard conclusions and emphasized that his study did not examine why the ratios are so skewed.
“To draw conclusions about why that is so is to be highly assumptive,” said Ray, a clinician and researcher with St. Michael’s Hospital’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. “We know better than . . . to draw conclusions, pass judgments, when we really don’t have the fulfilling body of evidence.”
“I don’t want to be a speculator and a big mouth when I could offend people without necessarily helping them,” he added. “I would say that if the practice were true, we should generate the best evidence we can to then start to curtail that practice through really unchallengeable evidence.”
Female feticide — the widely-condemned practice of aborting female fetuses due to a preference for sons — happens by the millions in China and India, where the practice has been deemed a “crime against humanity” by the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India.
There is much debate over whether the practice has migrated to Canada, however. The issue was recently brought to the forefront by a controversial editorial — also published by the CMAJ — that urged Canadian doctors to stop divulging fetal sex to mothers until the 30th week of pregnancy, when an unquestioned abortion becomes virtually impossible.
The editorial was widely criticized and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists immediately issued a statement disagreeing with the position. But for Ray, it highlighted a pressing need for further research on the practice of female feticide in Canada.
Ray said prior studies have tackled the issue but the research was based on Census data, which is self-reported and can be less reliable. He believes his study is the first to use statistics from live births and focus specifically on Ontario.
In the study, Ray and his co-authors used data from Ontario Vital Statistics and examined live births between 2002 and 2007 (twins and other multiples weren’t included). Each newborn was categorized according to the mother’s place of birth — Canada, Europe, South Korea, China, Philippines, rest of East Asia, Pakistan, India, rest of South Asia and “other.”
All mothers are slightly more prone to having sons the first time around, with a ratio of about 1.05, or 105 boys for every 100 girls. But looking at families with second children, the male-to-female ratios spiked for South Korean-born mothers (from 1.06 to 1.20) and Indian mothers (from 1.04 to 1.11).
If the women had a third child, the male-to-female ratio for South Korean-born mothers actually dropped to average levels — but the sample size of women in this category also shrank significantly (there were only 344 births), possibly due to a Korean tendency to have smaller families, Ray said.
For Indian-born mothers with two prior children, 1,883 had sons and only 1,385 had daughters — resulting in a skewed male-to-female ratio of 1.36.
“It’s outside the natural order by quite a bit,” observed Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics. “All indications, I’d say, are that something is going on there and that something may well be the selective termination of female fetuses.”
Interestingly, male-to-female ratios remained largely the same for mothers from Pakistan — neighbouring country to India — as they had second and third children. The study notes that this could be because abortion is religiously prohibited in Pakistan, which is a largely Muslim country.
Ray acknowledged that there are gaps in his research — he could not determine the ethnicities of the Canadian-born mothers, for example, and his study also did not examine statistics around abortions, a focus Ray plans on pursuing next.
But the study’s greatest weakness is failing to determine the genders of the women’s previous children, said Prabhat Jha, chair of Disease Control at the University of Toronto. He also works at St. Michael’s Hospital as director of the Centre for Global Health Research.
“To really understand what these stats are, you have to understand what was the gender of the previous children in the family,” said Jha, who has done extensive research on female feticide in India.
“Selection happens at higher birth orders, which means you let nature decide the first child and if you have a girl, then a small number of homes say, ‘Well, we want a boy.’ That’s when they turn to sex-selective abortion.”
Even if this latest study proves that female feticide is happening in Ontario, it would reveal that it is occurring in very small numbers, Jha said.
Using the study’s findings, Jha calculated that there were about 245 “missing girls” for Indian-born mothers with at least two prior children — that’s less than one per cent of the 31,963 babies born to Indian women between 2002 and 2007.
“Important but subtle biases, such as higher migration of women who are about to give birth to a son might well explain this finding and suggest that selective abortion is not the explanation,” Jha said.
For Kripa Sekhar, executive director of the South Asian Women’s Centre, she agrees more research needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn.
In Brampton, which has a large South Asian population, some community health workers have reported that female feticide is certainly happening. But Sekhar — who is an Indian immigrant herself — says the issue never comes up at her centre, which is located near Dupont St. and Lansdowne Ave. but serves about 10,000 South Asian women from across the GTA every year.
While she is concerned about the issue, she cautioned against making premature conclusions — which could cause more harm than good.
“You want to protect women but in the process, are we looking at a small segment of women that might be profiled negatively and then a whole community becomes (stigmatized)?” she said. “But if in fact (female feticide) is happening — and I cannot conclude that it is based on this study — then it would be of serious concern to us.”