Abortions skewing gender ratio

IMBALANCE::Taiwan’s gender imbalance trails only South Korea and China in East Asia because of the cultural emphasis on having boys, who can carry the family name

By Vincent Y. Chao and Shelley Huang  /  Staff Reporters

Mon, May 16, 2011 - Page 2

Estimates that thousands of female fetuses are aborted each year in Taiwan have led to calls for health agencies to better regulate measures aimed at closing the nation’s gender gap, which is among the most skewed in the world.

Providing better subsidies, education and care for pregnant women should also be a priority, lawmakers from both parties said yesterday, with the newest government statistics showing that 1.09 males were born for every one female last year.

In most countries, a male--female ratio of 1.06 to one at birth would be the norm. The disparity led Bureau of Health Promotion -Director--General Chiou Shu-ti (邱淑媞) to suggest on Saturday that more than 3,000 female fetuses were selectively aborted last year alone.

“The gender imbalance is deeply troubling for Taiwanese society,” Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Wu Yu-sheng (吳育昇) said, adding that Taiwan only needed to look at China to see the effect of long-term imbalances. “The government needs to come up with a new policy to deal with the issue.”

KMT Legislator Pan Wei-kang (潘維剛), who heads the Modern Women’s Foundation, said the problem was deeply rooted in beliefs that prize males over females.

As a result, government agencies need to take a two-pronged approach, Pan said.

“Starting from the basics, we need to start by reinforcing ideas of gender equality while [better] regulating hospitals that are engaging in the illegal actions,” Pan said. “We need to use every aspect of the law to ensure a male-female balance.”

While there is no talk yet of introducing new legislation, lawmakers from both parties have advised that the government prioritize the problem of gender imbalance — similar to how the dwindling birth rate became a national security issue earlier this year.

“The government needs to play a leadership role and correct some of society’s values,” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲) said, adding that on the topic of medical principles, “both health and interior [agencies] need to show a bit more [vigor].”

The Department of Health (DOH) said it would step up investigation of doctors and medical institutions that are suspected of engaging in gender-biased sex selection.

While most mothers learn the gender of their baby by looking at an ultrasound about 19 or 20 weeks into their pregnancy, those who are considering aborting female fetuses can learn the sex of the baby as early as six to eight weeks into the pregnancy by sending blood samples to private testing facilities.

“Even though the government has continuously promoted the idea that boys and girls are equally good, the DOH has still observed a high male-to-female newborn ratio of 1.09,” Chiou said.

Chiou said the gender imbalance was most likely caused by the belief held by some that males will carry on the family name.

Many families that visit clinics that “guarantee boys” say that the father must shoulder the entire burden of producing heirs to the family, Chiou said.

The bureau also found that parents’ gender preferences were especially obvious after the birth of their first child. For most families, if the mother first gives birth to a boy, then the sex of the second baby is not as big a concern, while if the mother first gives birth to a girl, then families that believe in males carrying on the family name are often desperate for a boy. As a result, many families turn to gender selection techniques such as aborting female fetuses, creating an imbalance between the male and female newborn ratio.

To address the problem of medical institutions that illegally and unethically “guarantee boys” to parents who do not want a female baby, the department said it had formed a task force involving various bureaus to control the situation and investigate medical institutions with suspicious male-to-female infant ratios.

Bureau of Health statistics show the sex ratio imbalance has been a long-running problem in Taiwan, remaining consistently at almost 11 males for every 10 females for most of the past decade, even as polls show only a small number of Taiwanese prefer boys over girls.

In 2009, the sex ratio at birth dipped to 108.5 to 100, with males outnumbering females 100,155 to 92,310, the lowest in recent record, although it shot back up to 110.12 to 100 in the first half of last year, a development that experts have watched with some concern.

The information comes despite a poll conducted by the department earlier this year that suggested that the vast majority of people do not prefer boys over girls and support government regulation over the issue.

About 91 percent of those surveyed said that they supported a government policy imposing fines on sex selection. However, more than one in four of those surveyed said that they would also insist on eventually having a boy, suggesting that there were still significant numbers that favored males.

Taiwan’s sex ratio imbalance is one of the highest in East Asia, behind only South Korea and China, UN data showed. The Bureau of Health banned sex selection in 2000 and last year announced that it would be stepping up fines and checks for alleged hospital assisted cases.