Some Indian doctors, using modern medical tests to determine the sex of unborn children, have been accused of abetting India's traditional -- although illegal -- practice of female infanticide.
According to doctors and women's organizations here, clinics across the country are performing often risky abortions if the woman is found to be carrying a female. The determination is made by amniocentesis, a test that tells the sex of an unborn child as a byproduct of its more important medical use of determining whether a fetus is physically or mentally deformed.
If the test shows the unborn child is a male, "jubilation" follows in the family, said a doctor in the northern Indian city of Amritsar.
Abortion after an amniocentesis test is risky and painful since the procedure may be done only after the first three months of pregnancy. Nevertheless, abortion always follows if the fetus is found to be a girl, said the doctor, who asked that his name not be used.
A clinic in Amritsar operated by a husband-wife team of physicians was reported by United News of India to have taken out billboards and run ads in movie houses for the sex determination-abortion package.
The clinic, which charges $60 for the combination, was reported to be drawing customers from all over northern India. Other clinics were reported by women's groups here to be in operation in Delhi, Bombay, Jullundur and Meerut.
Sex determination tests were banned in government hospitals eight years ago after authorities found that all 300 women given an amniocentesis test said they wanted abortions if the unborn child was female.
Vimla Ranadive, secretary of the All-India Coordinating Committee of Working Women, condemned "misuse" of such tests as "products of a male-oriented society where a girl born into a family is considered a liability."
Under such criticism, the Panjab State government has moved to restrain sex tests, and other states are considering similar action.
Yet, despite the fact India is ruled by a woman -- Prime Minister Indira Gandhi -- it is a country where men hold the upper hand. The birth of a son calls for a celebration, while a daughter is greeted with cries of "Too bad, try again."
Boys are considered more valuable in largely rural India because they can do heavy farm work. Moreover, it costs a family a dowry to marry off a daughter while a son brings in money and goods when he weds.
As a result of these traditional attitudes, the killing of female infants occurred frequently in India until it was outlawed by the British colonial rulers, who felt it was uncivilized. It remains against the law, although occasional cases come to light of a family killing off an unwanted daughter.
A more frequent occurrence, however, is what sociologist Jamila Verghese has called "death by neglect" -- the slow killing of little girls who are less likely than their brothers to receive needed medical care and who remain chronically under-nourished while the boys get first pick of the food.
Unlike the United States, where women outlive men, the life expectancy of females in India is lower than that of males. Ranadive of the All-India Coordinating Committee of Working Women blamed the disparity on India's "sex-biased feudal society."
"We are living in a country with a strong sex bias against women," said Sushila Gopalan, a woman member of Parliament. "In [the Indian states of] Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan baby girls continue to be killed after birth. Many more women and girls die from malnutrition and lack of medical care, and now killing female fetuses has become big business."
Two Indian women's groups have urged the Indian Medical Council to discipline doctors offering the sex determination-abortion package.
There have also been moves to ban amniocentesis, but medical authorities oppose this, pointing out that the test has important scientific value.