American women extol the technical educations of women in India - it may be that so many women in India are intent on getting a technical degree so they can get out of India. While sexual violence is getting all the current media attention, sexism and other bias are persistent.  The male bias is even evident in in women's health care - a woman in India is more likely to get prenatal care when pregnant with boys, according to a new paper by Leah Lakdawala of Michigan State University and Prashant Bharadwaj of the University of California, San Diego, which suggests sex discrimination in male-dominated societies starts early - even in the womb.

In analyzing the national health-survey data of more than 30,000 Indians, the scholars found that women pregnant with boys were more likely to go to prenatal medical appointments, take iron supplements, deliver the baby in a health care facility (as opposed to in the home) and receive tetanus shots. Tetanus is the leading cause of neonatal deaths in India.

According to the analysis, children whose mothers had not received a tetanus vaccination were more likely to be born underweight or die shortly after birth.

The researchers say they are the first to study sex discrimination in prenatal care and they also looked at smaller data sets from other countries. In the patriarchal nations of China, Bangladesh and Pakistan, evidence of sex-discrimination in the womb also existed. In Sri Lanka, Thailand and Ghana, which are not considered male-dominated, no such evidence existed.

Economist Leah Lakdawala, Michigan State University, co-authored the first study looking at sex discrimination in prenatal care. Credit: Michigan State University

In India, while it's illegal for a doctor to reveal the sex of an unborn baby or for a woman to have an abortion based on the baby's sex, both practices are common, Lakdawala said. But knowing the sex of the baby through an ultrasound also can lead to discrimination for those pregnancies that go full-term, she said.

"This type of discrimination we're seeing, while not as severe as sex-selective abortion, is very important for children's health and well-being," Lakdawala said.

Given that previous research has linked early childhood health to later outcomes, sex discrimination in prenatal care might also have long-term effects.

"We know that children born at higher birth weights go to school for longer periods and have higher wages as adults, so the future implications here are pretty serious," Lakdawala said.

Published in the Journal of Human Resources.