Fertility Decline and Gender Bias in Northern India

Although it is widely acknowledged that the preference for sons is a barrier to a decline in fertility, considerable disagreement exists as to what actually happens to this preference when fertility declines in a region of low female autonomy. By analyzing the data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), we present evidence from northern India to show that the preference for sons is reduced when the ideal family size becomes small, even though it does not completely disappear. This finding appears to contradict trends in the juvenile sex ratio and the incidence of female feticide that suggest the intensification of gender bias. We argue that the anomaly is the result of a diffusion of prenatal sex-diagnostic techniques in regions where there is a large unmet demand for such methods. Using the NFHS data, we estimate that in northern India, girls currently constitute about 60% of the unwanted births and that the elimination of unwanted fertility has the potential to raise the sex ratio at birth to 130 boys per 100 girls.