The situation is much the same in China, where men outnumber women by 34 million – significantly more than the entire population of Australia.
Scientists have sparked controversy after creating a pin-prick test that can determine the gender of a baby after just eight weeks. Concerns have been raised the test could trigger a rise in sex-selective abortions, especially in countries such as India and China where families desire boys over girls for cultural reasons.
A recently published government report in India found that the country has 63 million fewer woman then it should because families are choosing to abort their female babies. Experts claim the controversial one-child policy, which lasted from the 1970s until 2015, helped to create the imbalance as families sought to have a son.
It is feared the new pin-prick test could fuel a ‘genocide’ of female babies in India and China as parents are given more time than previously to make a decision on whether to abort their babies.
Concerned scientists warn the test could trigger a rise in abortions, especially in countries such as India, where families desire boys
Experts also fear the test – which is similar to a version set to be rolled out on the NHS this year – could also fuel terminations in the UK, where the abortion time limit is 24 weeks. Parents-to-be are currently offered the chance to find out the sex of their child at their 20-week scan in the UK. But it is not 100 per cent accurate.
Some critics have also expressed concerns such tests could lead to a rise in sex-selection tourism. However, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service today condemned such fears as ‘unfounded’.
The pin-prick test has been created by Brazilian researchers who set out to improve the existing non-invasive prenatal test (NIPT), which already spots Down’s syndrome and two other genetic conditions.
The updated test, created by a team at Sabin Laboratory in Brasilia – the capital of Brazil – have updated the NIPT to make it able to spot the sex of a foetus with just a drop of blood. In experiments on 101 pregnant women, the team led by Dr Gustavo Barra found the test was completely accurate from eight weeks gestation.
Some private firms in the UK already charge women keen to discover the gender of their baby hundreds of pounds to take the test during the first trimester.
‘May encourage sex selection’
Hugh Whittall, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, today told MailOnline: ‘Many pregnant women and couples find out the sex of their foetus simply so they can prepare for a baby of one sex or the other, or because they are curious.
‘However, revealing the sex of the foetus at such an early stage of pregnancy increases the risk of terminations on the basis of sex taking place.
‘There is limited evidence about the extent to which sex selective terminations are taking place in the UK, but there is a real possibility that permitting very early tests for sex may encourage sex selection, both among UK residents and through “sex selection tourism”.
‘Given that there are few benefits to most pregnant women of finding out the sex of the fetus in the first few weeks of pregnancy, we believe that test providers should not be allowed to give out this kind of information.’
Dr Andrew McLennan, a gynaecologist at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, told NewScientist that it could lead to more sex-selective abortions.
HOW DOES THE NON-INVASIVE PRENATAL TEST WORK?
At the moment parents-to-be are offered the chance to find out the sex of their child at their 20-week scan. But it is not 100 per cent accurate. However, medical advances led to the creation of NIPT, which can spot the gender between nine and 13 weeks, and major genetic conditions.
The test is only approved by the NHS to spot children in the womb with Down’s syndrome, Edwards’ syndrome and Patau’s syndrome. Many doctors say the test reduces the risk of miscarriages linked to the invasive amniocentesis test – previously the only way of accurately diagnosing Down’s.
But private firms can charge women up to £400 to discover the gender of their baby in the first trimester – well before the abortion cut-off, using the same NIPTs. The test works by searching the mother’s blood for Y chromosome DNA, which only males carry. Women have two X chromosomes.
When can women find out the sex of their baby?
At the moment parents-to-be are offered the chance to find out the sex of their child at their 20-week scan in the UK. But it is not 100 per cent accurate. However, medical advances led to the creation of NIPT, which can spot the gender between nine and 13 weeks, and major genetic conditions.
When will the test be rolled out on the NHS?
The test, which is to be offered to thousands of women considered to have a higher genetic risk of giving birth to children with three major conditions, are only approved by the NHS to spot children in the womb with Down’s syndrome, Edwards’ syndrome and Patau’s syndrome. Chiefs said the tests would be implemented this year, but it is unclear what month they will be adopted.
Many doctors say the test reduces the risk of miscarriages linked to the invasive amniocentesis test – previously the only way of accurately diagnosing Down’s. But private firms can charge women up to £400 to discover the gender of their baby in the first trimester – well before the abortion cut-off, using the same NIPTs.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics previously called for this to be banned, amid fears it was driving an ‘arms race’ in the search for designer babies. ‘Easier’ to get an abortion at 10 weeks
Professor Tom Shakespeare, professor of disability research at the University of East Anglia, also warned the sex test could trigger a rise in abortions. He said last March that very few women will agree to an abortion at 20 weeks – but admitted getting a termination is ‘much easier’ for them at 10 weeks.
What’s different about the new NIPT?
Dr Barra’s updated NIPT works in the same way as the old one, by searching the mother’s blood for Y chromosome DNA, which only males carry. Women have two X chromosomes.
This means that if the test spots a Y chromosome in the pregnant woman, their child must be a boy. If none are detected, the foetus is a girl, NewScientist reports. The current version of the NIPT requires around 20ml of blood, collected from the expectant mother’s arm using a needle and syringe.
The new test revolutionises that method and brings it in line with blood tests for diabetes. These samples contain roughly 0.2ml. Dr Barra, who believes women will have access to the test ‘very soon’, said the new method is better for women who are scared of needles.
However, they fear the test – which is a version of an existing one set to be rolled out on the NHS this year – could also fuel terminations in the UK
It involves wiping each woman’s fingertip with a dilute amount of bleach to get rid of any DNA that could contaminate the sample. The results of the study into the new NIPTs, which involved four other researchers, were published in the scientific journal Prenatal Diagnosis.
Has anyone welcomed the new test?
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has welcomed the results of the new test, ahead of the roll-out of NIPTs across the NHS later this year. A spokesperson said: ‘We welcome technological developments that enable women to find out information that is important to them about their own pregnancy.
‘Sex selective abortion is not an issue in this country, and we believe any concerns that this would increase terminations on that basis are unfounded.’
Professor Julian Savulescu, director of Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, said the new test would be ‘progress’ for the UK. However, he warned ‘the situation is different in India and China’, where in some places there are six males to five females.
Dr Jayne Spink, chief executive of Genetic Alliance, said: ‘NIPT is a safe, non-invasive technique that brings no risk of miscarriage and can provide accurate information earlier in pregnancy than is possible with established invasive techniques.
‘It is, in the view of Genetic Alliance UK, a leap forward in the quality of information provided to women about genetic conditions that may affect their pregnancy.’
IS THERE REALLY A ‘GENOCIDE’ OF WOMEN IN INDIA AND CHINA?
Campaigners have for decades argued sex-selective abortions are driving a ‘genocide’ of India’s female population. A Government report earlier this year found the country has 63 million fewer women than it should do because of parents preferring boys.
Chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian revealed the shocking statistics in a report and said India must ‘confront the societal preference for boys’. In China, the world’s most populated country, men outnumber women by almost 34 million – significantly more than the entire population of Australia.
Experts claim the controversial one-child policy, which lasted from the 1970s until 2015, helped to create the imbalance as families sought to have a son. In both Indian and Chinese culture, the birth of a son is often a cause for celebration and family pride.
However, the birth of a daughter can be a time of embarrassment and even mourning as parents look toward the immense debts they will need to take on to pay for marriage dowries.
Professor Rob Brooks, an evolutionary biologist at University of New South Wales told SBS that sons are preferred in some culture’s because they are more likely to ‘take care of parents in old age’. Girls are more likely to marry and help look after someone else’s parents, he said.
India’s Government revealed in January that there will be 105 boys for every 100 girls without any human intervention. But previous estimates from 2011 suggest the problem is already worse than that, with 914 girls under the age of six to every 1,000 boys the same age.
In China, the UN states there are nearly 116 boys for every 100 girls, however reports claim the ratio is much higher in poor rural areas. Campaigners have warned sex-selective abortions are often the only work newly qualified medics in India can find because of a surplus of staff.
The Times has previously reported how illegal ultrasounds can cost in the region of 10,000 rupees (£135) in some Indian cities, but warned portable scanners are available to some villagers at a fraction of the price.