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Concoctions That Promise Boy Babies Are Causing Harmful Birth Defects

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Jul 28, 2018

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Traditional healthcare systems are taking advantage of son-preference norms and vulnerable pregnant women by offering concoctions that falsely purport to influence the sex of a fetus — but actually damage the fetus instead, writes Navodita Jain for IndiaBioscience, republished by The Wire.

In Haryana, a state notorious for son preference and a skewed gender ratio, 25% of infants are born with congenital malformations, that is, birth defects; Sutapa Bandopdhyay Neogi, of the Indian Institute of Public Health-Delhi, Public Health Foundation of India, looked into the disturbing trend, and found the root cause for such a high incidence: unregulated indigenous sex-selection drugs.

“We were quite convinced of the harmful effects of the [indigenous preparations],” Neogi told IndiaBioscience. “While we initiated animal model studies, we also thought it would be fruitful to start investigating the chemical components contributing to the effects.”

Neogi and team found high levels of lead and mercury in three traditional drugs used for sex-selection, drugs that contained the ingredients Shivalingi (Bryonia laciniosa), Majuphal (Qtuercus infectoria), or Nagkesar (Mesua ferrea). In these concoctions, lead was found to be roughly 10 times higher than recommended FDA levels, and mercury, 400 times higher. At such high levels of exposure, these heavy metals can cross the placental barrier and affect the fetus, especially in the first trimester, which is when these drugs are consumed. Heavy metal exposure is particularly damaging to the brain development of fetuses, and even of children after birth; there is also some evidence to suggest heavy metal exposure may be linked to increased risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

But the questionable ingredients don’t stop there. A previous study by the same researchers also found the presence of phytoestrogens in the same indigenous drugs. Phytoestrogens are chemicals that imitate hormones naturally present in our bodies; in pregnant women, phytoestrogens can lead to hormonal imbalances, and even sterility. Some drugs even had testosterone, which is linked to serious complications during pregnancy.

In another population-based study conducted by the team, they found roughly 40% of mothers who consumed these risky drugs had a primary education; fathers worked in manual labor. These women were three times more likely than the general population to have a child with congenital malformations.

Son preference is an insidious, long-lived mindset that’s difficult to shake. What’s most disheartening about these findings is how deep the fallout of son preference extends. While much has been written on the oppression of girls and women in regions with strong male preference, this research shows there are more, hidden victims of the retrogressive, misogynistic mindset — the children of both sexes who would have been born healthy, had these concoctions not been taken; the mothers, who are inevitably and unfairly blamed for the birth defects that result from these drugs, as they are held responsible for the sex of their child.

Neogi, like any scientist, is calling for more research into the subject. Jain ends the article with a call for science and health education so that families know no drug can influence the sex of a baby.

But while both courses of action are important, neither change the mindset that underpins sex selection efforts. Which means sex selection methods just become safer. Neogi’s own research shows how lingering male preference is, and how dubious progress against it: Her team found higher malformation risks in families with a previous female infant — suggesting that while families might now be okay with (or resigned to) having one girl, they are willing to go to great lengths to avoid the ‘burden’ of two.

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Written By Angelina Shah

Angelina Shah is a staff writer with The Swaddle. In her previous life she was a copywriter in advertising. She has a penchant for reading, singing, travelling and being obsessed with superheroes.

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