Are Indian-born moms in Canada choosing to have baby boys over baby girls?

Newborn babies lay in their beds at the St. Elisabeth and St. Barbara hospital in Halle, eastern Germany, on January 2, 2012.
Newborn babies lay in their beds at the St. Elisabeth and St. Barbara hospital in Halle, eastern Germany, on January 2, 2012. Waltraud Grubitzsch/Getty Images

There are 4,472 baby girls that should have been born to Indian immigrants to Canada.

That’s the estimate from new Canadian research warning that Indian-born moms living in Canada may be choosing to have baby boys over baby girls, especially if they already have two daughters. While it’s hard to definitively prove, the scientists say that based on patterns these expectant moms could be aborting their female fetuses to try again for a boy.

The St. Michael’s Hospital studies are highlighting the “magnitude of skewed sex ratios” among Indian immigrants to Canada.  Typically, there are about 105 boys for every 100 girls born in the country, but among Indian-born expectant moms who already have two girls, the ratio jumps to 138 boys for every 100 girls.

If the moms already had three kids, the disparity spikes to 166 boys for every 100 girls. And if abortion was involved before the next pregnancy, the chances of having a boy skyrocketed again.

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“These results show that among certain immigrant communities in Canada, there is a preference for males over females…In India, this issue has been reported for a few decades. There is a preference for sons, there is some kind of cultural pressure for families to have at least one boy in the family,” lead researcher, Dr. Marcelo Urquia, an epidemiologist who focuses on reproductive and immigrant health, told Global News.

“So the question is why is this still happening in Canada where it’s a country that espouses gender equality?”

Urquia said he heard anecdotally of “unbalanced” sex ratios among Asian immigrants but the existing data in Canada was sparse leaving him with more questions than answers.

He worked with Statistics Canada numbers while examining birth certificate data of 5.8 million births to Canadian-born women along with another 178,000 Indian-born women between 1990 and 2011.

Urquia’s data-crunching unveiled some troubling trends:

  • If Indian-born moms had one daughter, and one abortion before her next birth, the sex ratio is 175 boys to 100 girls
  • The sex ratio rises to 326 boys for every 100 girls if Indian-born moms had two daughters already, and had an abortion before their third birth
  • It rises again to 409 for every 100 girls if the mother had more than one abortion
  • And it rises again to 663 boys for every 100 girls if the mother had at least one abortion at the 14-week mark when the sex of the fetus can be accurately estimated by an ultrasound
  • The researchers estimate that over the past two decades, 4,472 baby girls are now unaccounted for, largely among couples of two Indian-born parents

Urquia didn’t see any “strong associations” after having a baby boy first. He said his data didn’t look at how long the moms were in Canada but some arrived in childhood, he told Global News.

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Keep in mind, it’s incredibly difficult to prove that gender selection is the culprit. In Canada, abortions are legal and free in Canada and there are no questions asked.

Urquia says right now, he’s working with “indications” of sex selection based on the patterns.

In Indian culture, sons are supposed to take care of their elders while daughters have to provide a dowry – a hefty financial contribution to her spouse’s new family.

“There is an Indian proverb that having a daughter is like watering the neighbour’s garden,” Urquia said told Global News.

He said the implications go beyond child birth, too. It’s unclear if little girls born to Indian-born parents could be at a disadvantage in infancy, childhood and adolescence, too.

Medical ethicist and University of Toronto professor, Dr. Kerry Bowman, told Global News that policing gender selection is tricky. In Canada, women can have an abortion, no questions asked, but health care professionals won’t stand by abortion because of the sex of a baby.

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“Any woman that comes forward and says I don’t want to have this baby because it’s a girl, absolutely doctors won’t proceed with an abortion but I fully get that there’s a loophole here and it’s very clear,” he said.

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In a commentary paired with the study, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, doctors say an old practice like sex selection has been made easier because of newer technology.

Their hope is that these findings stir up conversation and re-evaluation of public health policies to stop it from continuing.

Read the full study and commentary.