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Reproductive racism: gender selection technologies target Asian communities.

NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING ECONOMIST AMARTYA SEN speaks of "missing women." Other experts call the phenomenon "gendercide." They refer to gender selection, a practice that is thriving in South Asian societies in the United States and abroad, thanks to new, sophisticated reproductive technologies.

"We get several calls a week from folks, especially from India and China either living here or who plan to visit, asking if we can definitely help them make a baby boy," notes a hotline operator for The Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles, one of numerous clinics that have mushroomed in the United States to cater to the growing demand for state-of-the-art reproductive technologies.

There are currently three techniques of gender selection available: pre-natal testing, pre-implantation genetic diagnoses and sperm sorting. Pre-natal testing consists of ultrasound that detects the gender of the fetus, allowing parents to abort if the fetus is of an undesired sex. The latter two techniques are more complex. With genetic diagnosing, a woman first goes through in vitro fertilization, during which her eggs are surgically extracted and fertilized outside the body. Doctors then test the embryos and implant only those of the desired gender. Originally developed for the detection of sex-linked genetic disorders, the technique is now employed in gender selection. MicroSort technology, or sperm sorting, involves literally sorting through sperm to find the sex-determining chromosome (Y for a boy and X for a girl) and then inseminating the woman with sperm that will create a baby of the desired gender.


Gender selection technnologies are of increasing interest to an elite class that filters issues through a paradigm of choice and access. While many mainstream news reports and articles do gently hint at the ethical issues of using the technologies for non-medical purposes, the final verdict rests on each family's shoulders. Since genetic diagnosing and sperm sorting help families avoid the trauma of female infanticide and feticide that earlier, less sophisticated technologies allowed, it is a popular notion, even among some progressive members of the South Asian community. What's lacking, however, is a deeper analysis of the sexist and racist consequences of the technologies.

"It is important to have a critical discussion of the implications of reproductive technologies, especially for women of color," affirms Sujatha Jesudason of the Center for Genetics and Society, who is a veteran reproductive rights activist and community organizer. "Because if we don't, then we as a society let the market determine what is acceptable instead of challenging the current and future misuse of technology that is growing increasingly sophisticated. This is a deeply ethical and feminist issue."

Despite the formidable costs--between $18,000 and $23,000 on average--it is not uncommon for middle-class and affluent couples from India and China to visit the United States to access these technologies, which are either banned or unavailable back home.

Dubbed as the new face of reproductive tourism, many clinics encourage the practice with slick marketing strategies targeting South Asian communities. Advertisements for gender selection appear in Asia-bound in-flight magazines and increasingly in South Asian community papers. Often, the new technologies are framed in "neutral" ways (many U.S.-based institutes refer to gender selection as "family balancing"), reducing the practice to the level of the family's choice to have a baby boy or girl.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect underlying the availability of these technologies is the racism that helps perpetuate it. In their newsletters and online testimonials, the Washington, D.C-based Genetics and IVF Institute and The Fertility Institutes with centers in L.A., Las Vegas and Mexico, feature largely white American couples who herald the technology for enabling them to complete their families. The fact that Asian families use these technologies to sire boys is completely suppressed. While clinic websites project availability and access as a race-neutral phenomenon, the news reports featuring these centers and calls to their information hotlines paint a different picture--one in which representatives grudgingly acknowledge that Asian couples are a huge consumer base that typically prefers boys.

Most of the calls to centers like The Fertility Institutes are from women. There is enormous pressure on women from their families and husbands to produce that baby boy who will continue the family name and be their future economic savior. "A lot of women who come to us for help tell us that the sex of their baby determines the security of their married life," says Atashi Chakravarty, who heads Narika, a Bay Area-based group that works to end domestic violence in the South Asian community. "Giving birth to a girl can many times accelerate the abuse and violence they experience from their husband or his family."

As profits of these U.S.-based clinics soar, several South Asian governments have become alarmed at the imbalanced gender ratios in India and China, where "son preference" is an established reality. A 2006 UNI-CEF report finds India battling a highly skewed national gender ratio of 927 females for every 1,000 males--a drop from the 1991 figure of 945 females for every 1,000 males. China is experiencing a similarly alarming imbalance that is compounded by its one-child-per-family policy. But this hasn't stopped the Genetics and IVF Institute from operating branches in Shanghai and Guangzhou since 1996.

Numbers aide, the concerns of reproductive rights groups and activists worldwide focus on the ethics of gender selection. These concerns caused Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom to ban the use of reproductive technology for gender selection purposes. But in the United States, the clinics propagate it as free choice.

As new technologies emerge that enable a booming middle class in South Asian countries to access them freely and guiltlessly, activists, community organizers and policymakers are recognizing the need to work across borders and boundaries.

Preeti Shekar is a feminist activist and journalist from India.


AS PART OF A MUCH-NEEDED RESPONSE to gender selection, the South Asian-immigrant and American-born community in the Bay Area is revving up to address this important issue. Beginning with a petition campaign to get an Indian community paper to stop publishing an advertisement for The Fertility Institutes' sex selection technology, the campaign plans to seriously engage the South Asian community to address the way modern technologies are shaping socio-cultural choices that are rooted in sexist prejudice and discrimination. The campaign's larger goal is to raise consciousness in the South Asian community about the issue of gender selection. For more information, contact Preeti Shekar at or Sujatha Jesudason at
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Author:Shekar, Preeti
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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