Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care


Son preference and prenatal sex selection against females in the UK: evidence, causes, trends...

Sylivie Dubuc, University of Reading and Bernice Kuang, University of Southampton

(Project no. 1013206)

Prenatal sex selection against females (PSS) among diasporic communities in the West, including the UK, is a relatively recent phenomenon that poses novel ethical, medical, societal and political challenges. While demographic evidence of PSS over the period 1990-2005 has been reported among Indian born mothers in the UK, recent trends of PSS among British Asian women remain unclear. The proposed project will use quantitative methods to analyse demographic manifestations of son preference, including gender-based parity progression, sex ratios at birth (SRB) and by birth order. The former would evidence son preference, the latter may or may not also evidence PSS.

Alternatively, son preference can be manifested in parents’ childbearing decisions.  Specifically, parents with only daughters continue childbearing until a boy arrives, termed “differential stopping” behaviour (Bongaarts, 2013). Both differential stopping and PSS result in a higher proportion of boys as last born, thus evidencing son preference, but only PSS results in a bias of the overall SRB.

Distinguishing between the fertility squeeze effect involving PSS and differential stopping behaviour is important. For instance, failing to do so has led to unsubstantiated claims of PSS among Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghani immigrants in the UK (The Independent, Steve Connor, 15th Jan 2014, The lost girls. Personal communications Connor and Anagnostopoulos).

In the UK, birth registrations showed a significant increase (4%) in the SRB to India-born women since the increasing availability of prenatal sex determination techniques (mainly ultrasound diagnostics), and compared with 1969-1989. Birth registrations only allow us to investigate sex-ratios by birth order for the three main South Asian immigrant women groups. Complementary survey data would provide a more comprehensive evaluation of son preference across Asian groups, distinguishing by generation in the UK. We will use the Longitudinal Study to such effect and analyse intergenerational changes in son preference and related childbearing practice.

The overall ESRC project includes 5 programs of work as follow:

1: Monitor the trends of PSS in the UK

2: Evaluate son-preference leading to PSS and changes in the UK

3: Qualitative insight into the dynamics of contemporary family making influencing gender values, norms and attitudes

4: Policy framing analysis

5: Articulating rights, ethics and gender justice

6: Engaging stakeholders, communicating outcomes and informing policy

Here is some detail on the programme of work relevant to the Longitudinal Study:

2: Evaluate son-preference leading to PSS and changes in the UK

We plan to use the Longitudinal Study to construct birth histories for sample mothers by gender and birth order, distinguishing mothers’ ethnicity (or parents’ country of birth where ethnicity is unavailable) and country of birth.

With these birth histories, we will conduct parity progression analyses (survival analyses) and cross-sectional logistic regression testing to measure the likelihood of having an additional child based on the gender composition of previous children, which indicates son preference.  To avoid very small sample sizes, we will focus on the main Asian ethnic groups in the UK- Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Chinese.