No Girls Please, We're Indian
Sex Selection Ads Land Ethnic Media in Hot Water
New America Media, News Feature, Mandy Oaklander Posted: Sep 10, 2007
Editor’s Note: Clinics offering sex selection technology are reaching out to ethnic communities through their media. But as some Indian-American media are finding out, running the ads might be sending a mixed message to their readers when the sex ratio is already lopsidedly skewed in favor of boys in India. Mandy Oaklander is an intern for New America Media.
“Have a Boy, Have a Girl Guaranteed!” Five happy diapered babies, each of a different ethnicity, reach out to expectant parents of all races in an ad for a fertility clinic. But that ad for The Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles has Indian-American media caught in the throes of a dilemma.
The Fertility Institutes, which has several hundred Indian clients, has been running the ad for months in papers like India-West, a 30-year-old weekly headquartered in San Leandro, Calif. But in its July 20 issue, India-West carried it on the very same page as two articles about female infanticide in India, a dark corner of India’s past that continues to plague its present.
India’s sex ratio ranks among the world’s lowest: according to the 2001 census, for every 1,000 males there are only an average of 933 females. Alarmed by the widespread practice of female feticide and female infanticide, in 1994 India made it illegal for doctors to report the sex of an unborn child.
Now some Indians are traveling from India to The Fertility Institutes, which claims to run the largest sex-selection program in the world. Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, medical director of the gender selection program at the Fertility Institutes says 25 percent of his Indian patients travel from India to Los Angeles for the $18,000 procedure. Steinberg affirms that the institute’s ads “absolutely” target the ethnic media because “there’s a strong preference in certain ethnic groups for gender selection, one way or another, boy or girl.” The Fertility Institutes devote 5 percent of its advertising to ethnic media. “The 5 percent brings in about 20 percent of our business,” Steinberg said.
The clinic uses pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which allows doctors to choose embryos on the basis of different criteria like health or sex. When he started getting requests from couples to use PGD to choose the sex of their next child, Steinberg said he accommodated their requests. “It’s certainly a tool that’s available, and I’m not going to deny it to anyone,” he said.
But Atashi Chakravarty, the executive director of Narika, a 15-year-old support group for South Asian women battling domestic violence claimed The Fertility Institutes is profiting from gender bias. “We see that technology being used, and women are using it to abort female fetuses,” Chakravarty asserted.
While the technology does not discriminate between boys and girls, Indians’ historical preference for a male child is no secret. Females are viewed more as a burden largely because parents must pay significant dowries when the girls are married off.
This could be why female infanticide ravages India. In July, body parts from approximately 36 female fetuses were found packed in plastic bags and discarded in the state of Orissa. Last year in Punjab, the remains of at least 50 female fetuses were found dumped in a well. The United Nations recently declared that in India about 2,000 female fetuses are aborted every day.
Chakravarty said that culturally ingrained biases run deep even in Indian communities in America. "The sex selection technology is really being used to get boys. They're not really using it as a tool for family balancing.”
Steinberg acknowledged he is not “deep enough in the culture” to fully understand the strong gender preferences in the Indian community. But he has no ethical ambiguities about the process. “We’re not going to be responsible for perpetuating the bias. India has some issues to look at. They have far more pressing, obvious things to look at than PGD,” Steinberg said.
India isn’t the only country with a historical preference for a male child. After China’s one-child policy was instituted in 1980, female fetuses were aborted and infant girls killed in order to procure a boy as the “one child.”
The Fertility Institutes also advertise in Chinese media, but Connie Su, client service manager for Ming Pao Daily News, said she has never been approached for a sex selection ad. Su said her paper would likely refuse out of respect for the community’s sensibilities. "I cannot be just money-driven that way," she said.
The controversy is not new or limited to India-West. In 2002, the San Jose, Calif.-based Indian Business and Professional Women (IBPW) vehemently protested a sex selection ad from another company carried in another Indian publication, India Currents. Responding to the protest, India Currents stopped running the ad.
“There was enough resistance from our readers—enough outrage really—and we felt we had to take our own social responsibility,” said Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents, acknowledging Indians’ “unabashed preference for the male child.”
IBPW’s Executive Director Deepka Lalwani, who spearheaded the efforts to get India Currents to pull the ad, is unhappy that such ads make their way into Indian-American publications.
“India-West is reporting what is happening in India, but at the same time they are (running) an ad which is promoting that,” said Lalwani. “An average intelligent person knows that this is the selection of a male child. It sends out the notion that girls are inferior.”
Outsiders aren’t the only ones perturbed by the ads in India-West. Lisa Tsering, a staff reporter at the newspaper, wrote a letter to the editor published last year in India-West, pointing out that for a community newspaper to run such an ad, “gives the impression that the paper condones sex selection.” “What percentage of your Indian-American clients is asking for a girl?” she asked the director of the clinic in her letter.
Twenty percent said Dr. Steinberg in his response, also carried by the paper. But he added that most of the 80 percent of Indian-American clients asking for a boy already have an average of three girls.
Now, almost a year later, the ratio has changed. According to Steinberg, 90 percent of requests from Indian clients have been for boys. Even so, India-West continues to run his ad.
Bina Murarka, the editor of India-West, denied the paper is condoning sex-selection. “It doesn't mean we're promoting it. You think we're promoting everything advertised in our paper?” she asked rhetorically.
Though the ads ran on the same page as stories on female infanticide in India, Murarka said, "We do not coordinate ads with the articles. I didn't pay attention, it's possible it ran on the same page by coincidence.”
Steinberg seemed amused when told how India-West had juxtaposed his ad with the news reports. “That’s probably not the best placement in the world,” he said.
Indian Couples Seek Out U.S. Sex Selection Clinics
Sex Selection Alive and Well in South Asian Immigrant Communities in the U.S.
Sex Selection in India Dodges Existing Laws
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