A CBC investigation has found that some privately owned 3D ultrasound businesses are allowing women to determine the gender of their fetus much earlier than they could from their doctors.

The CBC’s Investigations Unit, using hidden cameras, visited nearly two dozen so-called entertainment ultrasound businesses in three Canadian cities.

Of the 22 centres visited, 15 agreed to book an appointment for an ultrasound that would give a couple the gender of the fetus before 20 weeks of pregnancy. That’s within the range of time when it’s still possible for a woman to get an elective abortion.

"You basically proved that it is happening here," Dr. Verjinder Ubhi told CBC News after seeing the hidden camera footage. "We had suspicion but no evidence." Ubhi has been practising medicine in Brampton, Ont., for more than 20 years. "This is happening here, right in Canada." 

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Dr. Verjinder Ubhi says that people need to be educated about the value of a girl to the perpetuation of the community. (CBC)

The CBC investigation follows two recent studies that suggest the practice of aborting females in favour of males, common in countries such as India and China, has come to Canada.

A study released in April in the Canadian Medical Association Journal confirmed previous research showing that the male-to-female ratio for third-born children to women born in India and living in Ontario is higher than the natural rate.  

"The numbers are definitely tilted because women are aborting the girls," says Amandeep Kaur, the chief operating officer at Punjabi Community Health Services in Mississauga.

Kaur says she has had women come for help who had to deal with violence against them for resisting aborting a female fetus. "I’d say the women we see, at least 10 per cent of women come to our agency with this type of problem." 

Many Canadian hospitals and doctors won’t reveal the gender of a fetus until a woman is too far along to get an elective abortion.

Yet, in the last 10 years in Canada there has been an explosion of private 3D ultrasound businesses. For about $200 the parents can get a video 3D keepsake of the ultrasound, and for a smaller fee they can find out the gender only. These so-called entertainment ultrasounds are so popular they are often given as baby gifts.

Many of these businesses state that they do not do ultrasounds to determine fetal sex until 20 weeks. This is also the point where it becomes more difficult to have an abortion.

Yet, about two-thirds of the businesses visited by the CBC agreed to test for gender earlier than 20 weeks. Five of them agreed to test at as early as 14 weeks of pregnancy.

"Personally it’s shocking to me," says Kaur. "It’s very unfortunate that people who are in this business are actually in this business for the wrong reason."

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Amandeep Kaur, chief operating officer of the Punjabi Community Health Services in Mississauga, Ont., says women have come to the centre for help dealing with violence against them for resisting to abort a female fetus. (CBC)

UC Baby in Richmond, B.C., was willing to do the gender test at 17 weeks. The woman captured by the CBC's hidden cameras also appeared open to discussing the idea of an abortion if the fetus turned out to be female. "You don’t want another girl, right? Yeah, that’s the problem," she told our undercover producer, who said she had two girls already and was unsure about having a third. "You come here between 17 to 18 weeks, we tell you if it is a boy or a girl, if it’s a boy, fine you keep, if it’s a baby girl then you need to talk to family doctor."

In another exchange, at Modern Non Diagnostic Imaging Centre in Brampton, Ont., the CBC’s undercover producer was told she could have the gender tested right there and then, even when she said she was only 14 weeks pregnant. "Yeah, I will do it right now," said the operator, Dr. Ravi Thakur. 

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Dr. Ravi Thakur, operator of Modern Non Diagnostic Imaging Centre, Brampton, Ont., offered to do an early ultrasound for a CBC undercover producer for $600. (CBC)

When approached by CBC for an on-camera interview, the owner of Modern Non Diagnostic Imaging Centre said he doesn’t consider himself responsible for what people do with the information he provides. "That is their problem, that is not my problem," says Thakur.

Ubhi says most of his patients are happy with the prospect of either a boy or a girl. However, he says, he sometimes has patients who pressure him to send them early for an ultrasound. "I would ask them, why do you want an early ultrasound and if they say specifically we want to have, you know, the sex looked at, and I feel very strongly that that’s not right."

Tina Ureten is the president and founder of UC Baby, Canada’s largest chain of 3D ultrasound businesses, with 30 outlets spread across the country.

According to Ureten, it’s the policy at her centres not to test for gender before 20 weeks of pregnancy. However, eight out of 10 UC Baby clinics tested by CBC agreed to do the gender assessment before 20 weeks.

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Tina Ureten, president and founder of UC Baby, says she is reminding the 30 franchises of her company that they must not do ultrasounds before 20 weeks of pregnancy. (CBC)

"That surprises me," she told the CBC, after being shown some of the hidden camera footage filmed in her clinics. "I think they are not aware people are using that service for gender selection," she says.

"Most of our clients come for enjoyment and to get ready for the pregnancy. We don't see too many of those families that try to abort their babies after spending that money."

However, she says all of the clinics, which operate as franchises, will be reminded of the rules and risk being shut down if they don’t comply.

There are no laws or regulations in Canada about when the gender of a fetus can be identified by an ultrasound. Nor is it illegal to abort a fetus in Canada based on its gender. That’s not the case in India, China and the United Kingdom, all which have taken steps to make it illegal to abort a fetus based on gender.

Dr. Ubhi says Canadian laws may need to change, but he says even then that won’t be enough to stop the practice. "We need to give education to these people and say, and you know what?  A child is a child and girls are very important to the perpetuation of our community, and stop killing them, seriously."

If you have information on gender selection and ultrasounds please contact investigations@cbc.ca