Kolkata – By 2021, one million girls a year could be lost in India due to female feticide. The practice, which begins with illegal determination of the sex of the fetus and ends with sex-selective abortion, is conducted to avoid the birth of a female infant. However, the culprit appears to be the use of ultrasound technology which allows doctors or even technicians to relay the sex of the fetus to the parents and facilitate the death of the female fetus.
Ironically, female feticide is illegal in India. The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act was passed in 1994, making sex-selective abortion illegal. It was then modified in 2003 holding medical professionals legally responsible for the act. However, the PCPNDT Act has been poorly enforced by Indian states, with the exception of Maharashtra. “The number of conviction and even complaints against female feticide is few and far between. Though Maharashtra has made some strides, the rest of the states lag behind. The main problem is the tracking of ultrasound machines which are supposed to be sold only to registered clinics, but that is hardly the reality,” says Dr. Sabu George, an activist working to end female feticide. Tracking the illegally sold machines and the clinics which carry out the furtive tests is a challenge, says George.
This tangle led Sonya Davey and her team from the University of Pennsylvania to look for a an ultrasound technology which would not reveal the sex of the fetus to the parents. Thus, Ultrasafe Ultrasound – a technology that blocks the visibility of the genital organs of a fetus in a live ultrasound scan – was founded. In May this year, Davey’s team was one of 10 recipients to receive an Outstanding Innovation Award presented during the 2013 Dell Social Innovation Challenge. Over 2,600 other projects had applied.
With some funds in hand, Davey contacted Raj Shekhar, professor of engineering at the University of Maryland. “He guided us to create a strong algorithm that can be used the block the genital organs and we are currently testing the specificity and sensitivity of the algorithm with thousands of ultrasound scans,” Davey told India America Today.
While looking at patentability, Davey found that multinational ultrasound manufacturers like GE, Siemens, and Philips (which hold 75 percent of the ultrasound market in India) already have patents in the US and China on technology that can block the genitals in ultrasounds to prevent sex-determination and subsequently female feticide. “Why can’t they implement this in India?” asked Davey.
In India though, the problem is multi-faceted. A female child is undesirable because of the prevalence of the dowry system and the high value attached to a son. Parents of the child are often unaware of the impact of their decision to end the life of a female fetus. “We have often seen that families insist on knowing the sex of the fetus as soon as the fetus is 12 weeks old. Mothers often plead with the doctors or technicians if the sex of the fetus is not revealed,” said Dr. Krishna Dey, a senior gynecologist with the Belle Vue Nursing Home.
If the problem is not solved soon, it could lead to a situation where men in India may not find enough brides to marry.