A provision in a draft law that would be Azerbaijan's first comprehensive piece of reproductive rights legislation has sparked a debate about the need for a ban on fetal gender information to stop the practice of selective abortions of female fetuses.
The bill, titled Law on Reproductive Health and Family Planning, explicitly protects a woman's "right of reproductive choice" and includes provisions that aim to make it easier for women to obtain information about reproductive health and planning.
It does not ban doctors from releasing information about the gender of fetuses or from performing selective abortions, a practice that is currently legal.
A measure that prohibits couples from requesting a male or female embryo during in vitro fertilization, however, has been cast as a move toward such a ban. The measure is part of proposed regulations on infertility clinics and restrictions on artificial insemination and sperm donation.
The desire to bear male children has a long tradition in Azerbaijan, and throughout the South Caucasus. With increased access to medical technology, more Azerbaijani women have become able to determine the sex before birth and terminate the pregnancy if the child is not the desired sex.
That practice has prompted questions about whether the country is facing a demographic problem.
Musa Quliyev, a member of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party and deputy director of the Standing Committee on Social Policy, entered the debate in late November when he suggested that parliament should consider prohibiting doctors from informing patients about the gender of their unborn child.
"In my opinion, gender balance is a serious problem," Quliyev told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani service. He claimed that 60 percent of babies born in the last year were male and that "gender inequality may result in serious demographic problems in Azerbaijan."
Government statistics for the gender of newborns were not immediately available. The Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook, however, estimated that Azerbaijan had 1.13 newborn males for each newborn female in 2009.
Other countries, particularly those in Asia, have experimented with various measures to combat gender imbalances. South Korea, for example, banned doctors from informing patients about fetal gender in 1987. That law was only recently overturned by the country's Constitutional Court, which concluded that the outright ban "overly limits the basic rights of parents and physicians."
Even though no such measure is currently included in the Azerbaijani draft bill, the prospect of a ban on fetal gender information has gained support.
Lala Abbasova, an independent member of Azerbaijan's parliament who backs such a ban, believes that the preference of many families for "male children over female" is "a form of violence against women."
Others, however, believe any kind of information ban would be ineffective. "Let us educate the people of Azerbaijan and try to change their mindset," commented Mehriban Zeynalova, director of the Baku-based non-governmental organization Clean World, which focuses on women's and children's rights. "We must try to change the view of the parents and make them understand that having a girl is not something that will make you unhappy," she added.
Sevinj Sadigova, a Baku-based women's rights lawyer, agrees that targeting infertility clinics or banning doctors from telling their patients the gender of the fetus will not address the root causes of gender imbalance. "Selective abortion is a real problem," she said. "But one of the best ways to solve this problem is through education."
Although most involved in the debate agree that selective abortions are common, it is not clear the data bear out this conclusion.
A recent USAID demographic and health survey of 8,852 Azerbaijani women nationwide reported that only three percent of the interviewed women cited gender as the reason for terminating a pregnancy. The most common reason for obtaining an abortion was the desire not to have additional children (62 percent).
For now, however, the issue of selective abortions will remain one that is debated in public, but not on the floor of the Milli Mejlis, the Azerbaijani parliament. If the Law on Reproductive Health and Family Planning is not further amended, the only provision to address gender imbalance will be the provision banning in vitro fertilization sex selection.
A similar law failed in 2008, after parliamentarians expressed concern that creating a legal regime for artificial insemination and sperm donation contradicted Azerbaijani values.
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.