Monday, August 01, 2005

The Search for 100 Million Missing Women - An economics detective story

The Search for 100 Million Missing Women - An economics detective story. By Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt: "The Search for 100 Million Missing Women An economics detective story." Here's a much more plausible explanation for the changing sex ratios in India. It may not be because of widespread female feticide, as so many NGOs would have us believe, but rather because of silent hepatitis B infection in pregnant women, maybe because the female fetus is more likely to be miscarried when exposed to the virus.
It's sad that policy formulators in India have so facilely accepted the explanation that female feticide accounts for the changing sex ratios, without
bothering to look for evidence which would prove this hypothesis.

While it is plausible that the sex ratio is changing because of female feticide, this needs to be proven with raw hard data. If this hypothesis ( that the decline in females born is due to female feticide) is true, then the only explanation for the missing girls is that they have all been aborted. Now, the only inexpensive commonly available method of fetal gender determination uses ultrasound. Since this can be used to determine gender accurately only after 14 weeks ( since the fetal external genitals are visible only after 12 weeks) , this means that if selective female feticide needs to be performed, the doctor would need to do a second trimester abortion. This is a fairly complex medical procedure, which is usually performed only by gynecologists.
The 2001 Census figures for Punjab show that there are 1.7 million boys between the age of 0-6 years. If the sex ratio were normal (0.95) , we would expect to have 1.6 million girls. Since the census shows there are only 1.35 million girls, that means 250000 girls are “ missing “. If the newborn girls are missing because of abortions done after fetal sex determination as claimed, this means that 250000 mid-trimester abortions would have had to be carried out in Punjab in the past 5 years – a virtual epidemic of abortions , because this would mean 50000 mid-trimester abortions a year ! Mid-trimester abortions are like mini-deliveries, and are fairly complicated to carry out. They can be done safely only by a skilled gynecologist. It would be a simple matter to verify the number of abortions carried out in Punjab because most abortions are carried out in Govt recognized centers.( Since abortions are legal, there is no need for doctors to perform these on the sly , so one would expect all the abortions performed to be documented, even though the reason given for terminating the pregnancy may be false.) If the study shows that the number of abortions is not so high, this means that the hypothesis is not true, no matter how appealing and logical it may be. We then need to search for an alternative explanation for the declining sex ratio, rather than blame illegal sex determination procedures for this ! Such a study is important because it is the only way of proving the proposition that female feticide is altering the sex ratio, and will lend valuable support to the demand that the laws which ban female feticide be more strictly implemented. Why hasn't such a study been done ?

Unfortunately, activists prefer appealing to emotions by talking about the need to protect the “girl child” ! However, without supporting data, a theory is just speculation .We need to learn to analyse reports objectively , and to separate facts from opinion , specially when we deal with such important areas as citizen’s reproductive rights! Why has no Indian newspaper bothered to carry the story ?

It would be sad if we've been barking up the wrong tree all this time. We would have wasted a colossal amount of money - and ended up with egg on our face as well.

7 comments:

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