Newborn babies rest in a hospital in Calcutta, India. (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Doctors’ families in India are having more sons than daughters, reports a new study in the American journal Demography, implying that they too may be engaging in illegal son-preference practices including sex-selective abortions, a practice that is thought to be widespread in India.

Female feticide, among not only the poorer and uneducated families but also India’s burgeoning urban middle classes, has contributed to the nation’s skewed sex ratio. In the past decade, the female sex ratio, among children under the age of 6, fell from 927 to 914 girls for every 1,000 boys.

In 1996, India banned the use of ultrasound machines for determining the sex of the unborn child, unless medical emergency requires it. The government has, in the past, arrested many doctors and laboratory owners who continue to use it clandestinely for their patients.

But now it appears that the doctors may be accessing the technology for their own families to arrest the birth of girls.

The journal essay, titled “Skewed Sex Ratios in India: Physicians, Heal Thyself,” says “the heavily skewed sex ratios in the families of physicians are indicative of a deeply rooted social malady that could pose a critical challenge in correcting the sex ratios in India.”

The study was based on analysis of information that was already available in public domain.

The authors of the essay studied information that doctors had provided about their families to medical school alumni magazines issued 25 years after they enrolled in the school, in the central Indian city of Nagpur. The doctors had studied at the school between 1980 and 1985.

The analysis of information from 946 families, in which either one or both of the parents are doctors, revealed that the female sex ratio is as alarmingly low as 907 to 1000, much below the national average.

Even more telling was that, among the doctor-headed families with two children in which the first child was female, the average female sex ratio of the second child plunged to 519. But if the first child in the family was male, then the sex ratio of the next child was “marginally in favor of females”, the report said. This suggests that the families might be even more likely to use sex-selective methods if their first child is a girl.

“The numbers and trends that emerged from our analysis cannot be explained by natural selection alone, these numbers cannot be possible without any intervention,” Archana B. Patel, the lead author of the study who also heads the department of pediatrics at the Indira Gandhi Government Medical College in Nagpur, said in a telephone interview. “It came as a huge surprise because doctors are supposed to be the implementers of the law than bans prenatal sex-determination. We are not saying all the doctors we analyzed intervened. But even if you have a small proportion of them doing it, that is enough to skew the sex ratio in that group.”

If the larger nationwide trends on physicians' behavior concur with this survey, the authors conclude, “we may have uncovered one of the several possible mechanisms contributing to the failure of the implementation” of the law.