How Much Is Your Daughter Worth?

By the time you finish reading this story, 10 more female fetuses in India will have been aborted.

Aborted by a medical profession that profits from feticide and even infanticide. Aborted by parents who think girls are too expensive. Aborted by a society that does not value them.

In villages and cities across India, parents are aborting girls more often than at any time in history, doctors and children's rights groups say. In some rural areas, girls are also being killed after they are born. It all adds up to a dramatically skewed national ratio of females to males: 954 girls are born for every 1,000 boys, according to the government's 2001 census. In the United States, there are 1,050 newborn girls for every 1,000 newborn boys.

The problem has gotten worse.

26 years ago, there were 962 girls under the age of 6 for every 1,000 boys. Today, that ratio is 927 to 1,000. And it declines as the girls age: for every 1,000 15-to-19-year-old boys, there are only 858 girls.

The numbers, the government admits, reflect "a grim picture of the status of the girl child in the country."

This week, the women's and children's ministry announced the latest plan to reverse the trend. The premise: Pay a family to raise a girl.

Give birth to a daughter, and the family gets cash. Vaccinate her, more cash. Send her to school, feed her, delay her marriage, cash payment for each step.

The staggered payments will be handed out in seven, mostly rural states, beginning at $400 and extending up to an additional $2,500. They will "force the families to look upon the girl as an asset rather than a liability, since her very existence would lead to cash inflow to the family," Renuka Chowdhury, women and children development minister, told reporters earlier this week.

The money is a considerable sum. About half of all Indians live in villages and make less than $1,000 every year, according to the World Bank.

The new scheme's goal is obvious: Stop sex-selective abortions. The government says more than 100,000 girls can be saved every year.

"In India, you can kill a daughter and get away with it," Dr. Puneet Bedi, an obstetrician in New Delhi, tells ABC News. Bedi has been outspoken on the issue of female feticide, saying, "We believe there's a genocide on. To have a genocide you have to make killing palatable to people. Here, abortion is an accepted method of birth control, as is feticide."

The problem is massive.

The British Journal Lancet estimated that 10 million fetuses or newborn girls were killed in the past 20 years. That's an average of 500,000 a year, 1,370 a day, 57 an hour, almost one every minute.

"People simply don't have daughters. It's a mind-set," Razia Ismail, co-founder of the India Alliance for Child Rights, tells ABC News.

"There is a lot of ritual and tradition involved here. The fact that the boy carries on the family name, the fact that he keeps the land in the family. The idea with girls is that they go away, and so you've lost money."

So often here, families see a baby girl, and they see obligation. The obligation to pay a dowry, which is technically illegal but still widely practiced. The obligation to pay for the wedding.

Additionally, according to Hindu religious traditions that prevail in most of the country, the last rites for the dying are almost always performed by male heirs -- sons, nephews, grandsons but rarely female members of the family.

"Sons are seen as your social security," Bedi says. Boys are supposed to grow up and take care of their parents. "You invest in a son's education, health care, and the son will do the same for you."

Speaking to reporters, Chowdhury said that the new plan will "help to change the attitudinal mind-set of the family toward the girl, by linking cash and noncash transfers to her well-being."

But most private advocates for girls' rights believe the plan is the wrong one.

"It does not increase the value of the daughter," Ismail says. "It's a very sad way of valuing a person. Is it a person or is it a commodity? … It's to say that 'if you don't beat your children, I'll give you money.' No. You have to do something about offenders."

The offenders, Ismail says, are the doctors in the major cities who make abortions easier.

It is illegal in India for a parent to ask the sex of a fetus and for a doctor to reveal the sex. But in the dozen years since selective abortion was outlawed, only one doctor has been convicted.

Bedi accuses his own peers of allowing a bias against girls to become widespread feticide, especially among India's wealthy classes. "The desire not to have daughters -- the market was created by the medical profession. People openly advertised, 'Come to us and you'll have a son.'"

The BBC recently sent an undercover camera into the office of Dr. Mangala Telang, a specialist in New Delhi.

"You don't want a daughter?" she asked a British couple as she secretly taped the exchange. "We'll do the scan" to determine the sex of the baby, she says on the hidden camera, adding, "Don't talk about it or we'll end up in jail."

When asked whether Telang knew of any doctors willing to perform an abortion in case the fetus turned out to be a girl, she says, "I can recommend someone."

During the scan, another doctor is seen saying, "It's a boy," to which Dr. Telang says, "One hundred-ten percent. Congratulations."

From the first question to the congratulations, Telang seems to have broken the law. But she and other doctors who have been accused of doing the same thing have not been punished strongly enough, Bedi says.

"The government's not doing its job," he says. "People who blatantly break the law are going scott free. You have to put the fear of law in the medical practitioners' minds."

The other problem with the program, critics say, is that it targets the wrong part of society. The private doctors who have access to increasingly affordable ultrasound machines all practice in cities. It is the rich who are choosing abortions, Ismail says. Not the poor villagers who are the targets of the plan.

"The number of cases of feticide is a lot more in the upper classes than the lower classes. The rich don't value daughters any more than the poor do," Ismail says.

The government defends the program as part of a larger effort to educate Indians about children's and women's issues.

Ismail says in addition to holding doctors accountable, the government needs to focus on social education. "You must educate both men and women as to what their roles are in society," she says. "We need to create new images of roles for men and women. Most of our government planning is for women to become safe mothers. That is not a very egalitarian message."

Education, she says, "is a better course to follow than bribery."

Adds Bedi, the New Delhi obstetrician, "We do not have the time to play around with these chocolates and ice-ream solutions. We have to do something serious. There's a genocide on."