Bias against girls can start in the womb

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Women in India and other male-dominated societies are more likely to get prenatal care when pregnant with boys, new research reveals.

The practice of sex discrimination begining in the womb has implications for girls’ health and survival. “It paints a pretty dire picture of what’s happening,” says Leah Lakdawala, assistant professor of economics at Michigan State University.


In studying the national health-survey data of more than 30,000 Indians, researcher found that women pregnant with boys were more likely to go to prenatal medical appointments, take iron supplements, deliver the baby in a healthcare facility (as opposed to in the home), and receive tetanus shots.

Tetanus is the leading cause of neonatal deaths in India. According to the study, children whose mothers had not received a tetanus vaccination were more likely to be born underweight or die shortly after birth.

The research appears in the current issue of the Journal of Human Resources, and is the first to study sex discrimination in prenatal care.

It also looked at smaller data sets from other countries. In the patriarchal nations of China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, evidence of sex-discrimination in the womb existed. But in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Ghana—which are not considered male-dominated—no such evidence existed.

In India, while it’s illegal for a doctor to reveal the sex of an unborn baby or for a woman to have an abortion based on the baby’s sex, both practices are common, Lakdawala says.

But knowing the sex of the baby through an ultrasound also can lead to discrimination for those pregnancies that go full-term, she says.

“This type of discrimination we’re seeing, while not as severe as sex-selective abortion, is very important for children’s health and well-being,” Lakdawala says.

Given that previous research has linked early childhood health to later outcomes, sex discrimination in prenatal care might also have long-term effects.

“We know that children born at higher birth weights go to school for longer periods and have higher wages as adults, so the future implications here are pretty serious,” Lakdawala says.

Source: Michigan State University