At first glance, it seems like an innocuous spiel for baby-food. The advertisement, tucked away on the 19th page of The Times of India, shows a mop-haired and diapered toddler, gleefully clutching its hands. Then, you notice the disquieting catch phrase: "Gender Selection now a Reality." It goes on to offer Gen-Select—a pill-and-douche kit from a US firm—which claims to help couples choose the sex of their child. That too, before conception.
The product, which has been on offer for more than two weeks on the son-craving Indian shores, has sparked a wave of protest from women's rights groups and health activists. The foray made by the manufacturers of Gen-Select into the Indian market has also highlighted the urgency of plugging legal loopholes vis-a-vis the ban on sex determination tests. Currently, the law bans the use of genetic tests for identifying the sex of the foetus. But it doesn't address pre-conception sex determination tests.
Gen-Select—its claims have been dismissed by doctors in Mumbai—is the product of an Orangeberg, South Carolina, firm. That it has specifically targeted the Indian market, which reveres sons and despises daughters, is clear from its website. The only overseas toll-free number listed is for India. The product costs $119.95 (roughly Rs 6,000) and can be ordered online. When contacted by Outlook, the firm's managing director Scott M. Sweazy said he had received "tremendous response" in India, both from the public and distributors.
The manufacturers are vague on how Gen-Select works. They don't go beyond saying that the kit uses "uniquely formulated nutriceutical tablets and specially formulated douches". These, they claim, combine "into a fully integrated programme addressing all phases of conception". The programme, the manufacturers say, sways the "naturally occurring pre-conception gender selection factors in the couple's favour".
The National Commission for Women has written a condemnatory letter to The Times of India for carrying the advertisement. Its chairperson Vibha Parthasarthi is concerned about the support for sex selection in a country where the ratio of men to women has plummeted alarmingly. Over the last 50 years, the sex ratio has fallen from 946 women per 1,000 men to 933 women per 1,000 men. According to UNICEF estimates, nearly 50 lakh covert female foeticides take place in India each year.
Currently, the only legislation curbing discrimination against the unborn female child is the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994. Maharashtra enacted the legislation in 1988, following a sustained campaign by women's groups. The act targets the misuse of tests, which are meant to detect foetal abnormality, for sex determination.
However, it doesn't address preconception sex determination techniques ranging from pills and potions to an assortment of new reproductive technologies. Among the technologies currently on offer is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) which can identify male and female embryos during in vitro fertilisation. The embryo of the preferred sex is implanted into the womb.
"This typifies the transition of old patriarchal biases through the use of modern technology," says health researcher Ravi Duggal from the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT). The organisation is one of the bodies which filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court last year, demanding the inclusion of preconception sex discrimination techniques in the act.
Those opposing the CEHAT move include infertility specialist Aniruddha Malpani, who promotes PGD as the "ultimate form of family planning". Better to have preconception sex selection rather than female foeticide or subject a girl child to a lifetime of discrimination, he argues. All his 60 pgd patients over the past two years asked to be implanted with a male embryo.
Women's groups dismiss this "self-defeating and circular" rhetoric. Says Ammu Abraham of the Mumbai-based Women's Centre: "Not even allowing the girl child the right to be born is the ultimate expression of hatred towards the female gender."
Legal wheels are turning to include preconception sex discrimination in the act. But the greater challenge is its implementation. The lack of political will and cooperation from the medical fraternity, coupled with the strong societal bias against girls, have hindered action. Until the government cracks its whip, thousands of unborn girls are destined to remain "missing".
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