Armenia: Are Selective Abortions Behind Birth Ratio Imbalance?

ARMENIA: ARE SELECTIVE ABORTIONS BEHIND BIRTH RATIO IMBALANCE?

Marianna Grigoryan

EurasiaNet.org
July 6, 2011

Armenia’s high rate of male births is alarming international and
Armenian pre-natal specialists. Their chief concern is that selective
abortions are contributing to a demographically undesirable gender
imbalance.

Government statistics indicate that a gender imbalance in births has
existed since the early 1990s, but the trend has become more visible
in recent years. The State Statistical Service of Armenia reports
that 23,800 boys and 20,900 girls were born in 2010, working out to a
rate of about 114 male births for every 100 female births. In 2009,
23,600 boys and 20,700 girls were born, marking approximately the
same birth ratio as in 2010.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) puts the worldwide sex
ratio at birth at 105-106 males per 100 females. Armenia has an
overall population of 2.96 million.

Assessing the birth ratio, the head of the State Statistical Service’s
Census and Demography Department warned that Armenia faces “a serious
problem.”

“A study must be conducted to find out whether this imbalance is the
consequence of selective abortions, or something else,” said Karine
Kuyumjian. “[T]he problem is obvious, and it will become even plainer
later, when, along with demographic issues, we will face a lack of
future mothers.”

Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council
of Europe (PACE) recently reached a similar conclusion. Armenia’s
above-average rate of male births indicates “that there must be some
sort of pre-natal sex selection,” said Doris Stump, a PACE rapporteur
on pre-natal sex selection who travelled to Yerevan in June to assess
the problem.

“But there is no knowledge yet about how it is done and what is the
responsibility of doctors telling the sex of the child to the parents,”
Stump said. “More research has to be done on that question.”

A report about the need for member-countries “to fight against the
preference for boys” in family planning will be presented to PACE in
October, she added.

As elsewhere in the Caucasus (Georgia and Azerbaijan also post high
rates of male births, PACE reports), much of the problem may have to
do with a heavy cultural emphasis on the value of having sons.

“A good man must have a son,” said sociologist Aharon Adibekian,
commenting on Armenian attitudes toward their children’s gender. “If
you don’t have a son, who will inherit your belongings, your house and
[look after] your family?”

That perspective is on display at Armenian hospitals; at one Yerevan
facility recently, the overjoyed father of a newborn baby boy danced
to Armenian folk music, while medical staff consoled the mother of
a newborn baby girl that she’d “have a boy next time.”

Sociologist Adibekian, however, scoffs at the notion that this
preference would prompt women to abort female fetuses. “In countries at
war, the number of boys is high; this is called a war phenomenon,” he
asserted, referring to a spike in male births noted by demographers in
countries engaged in long-term combat, where 120 boys can be born for
every 100 girls. The same might be happening amid Armenia’s ongoing
standoff with Azerbaijan, Adibekian suggested.

Dr. David Mkhitarian the medical director of Yerevan’s prominent
Shengavit Medical Center, also dismisses as “nonsense” the claim that
female fetuses are being aborted selectively. “It’s just that more
boys than girls are born,” Dr. Mkhitarian said.

Armenia’s current population slightly favors women (51.5 percent) over
men (48.5 percent), a difference that could reflect labor migration
trends. The UNFPA’s deputy representative to Armenia cautions that
legitimate grounds exist for connecting Armenia’s high male birth rate
to “intentional actions.” The UNFPA expects to finalize a report on
the issue this November.

“[S]ince the findings of the study are yet unknown, maybe it’s too
early to speak about it with certainty, but if we try to consider
it logically, we will see it is very likely to be so,” said Garik
Hayrapetian.

“The birth rate has decreased about twice now as compared to the
1980s, and by reducing the number of baby girls we risk entering a
vicious circle,” Hayrapetian continued. “When we say we need soldiers
to provide for Armenia’s security, we should not forget that we need
enough … mothers to whom these soldiers will be born in the future.”

But for women like 27-year-old Yerevan homemaker Gayane Hovhannisian,
her husband and her family’s “honor” outweigh any concern about
Armenia’s demographic situation.

A mother of two daughters, Hovhannisian says that she did not
hesitate to opt for an abortion when she learned she was pregnant
with a third girl. Six months later, she got pregnant again; this
time, with boy-girl twins. To avoid having another girl, she chose
another abortion.

“After these abortions, I finally fulfilled my husband’s dream, and
our son was born,” Hovhannisian said. “I would burn with shame if I
failed to give birth to a son.”

Official statistics show that the number of abortions in Armenia
(13,797 cases) increased by roughly 10 percent in 2010 compared with
the previous year; some specialists, though, maintain that the actual
figures are higher.

A fetus’ gender cannot be determined until the 14th week of pregnancy,
but Armenian law only allows abortions through the 12th week of
pregnancy for women without contraindications.

That suggests that many abortions “are performed secretly and
illegally,” said Marine Margarian, a project coordinator on gender
rights issues at the Public Information and the Need for Knowledge
non-governmental organization. “Of course, an abortion performed after
the 12th week of pregnancy is not registered officially; otherwise,
the picture would be clearer.”

Dr. Mkhitarian cautions that warnings about gender-based abortions
will do nothing to stop the use of abortions for “family planning.”

“[I]f … a woman of about 40 has three daughters and she learns she
is expecting a fourth girl, she will go for an abortion despite any
recommendations by either PACE or the Republic of Armenia or whoever
it may be,” said Mkhitarian.

Editor’s note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in
Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.

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