This is the first post in a series of articles examining sex-selective abortion in India, by our Global Perspectives correspondent Deepali Gaur Singh. For the complete series, please click here.
Only recently local administrators at Pataudi, a small village very close to the Indian capital, were busy picking bones of fetuses out of two wells in the vicinity of a nursing home. This was amidst accusations of a flourishing business of sex-selective abortions running from there.
Any form of discourse on an issue as contentious as sex-selective abortions runs the very real risk of getting polarized along very simplistic lines of being on either one side of the fence or the other. Hence, while speaking of this complicated topic of aborting female fetuses one risks sounding anti-choice and becoming easy fodder for the anti-abortion advocates. But the issue is more complex and deeper than that.
With the advent, in the 1980s, of ultrasound technology, sex selection has become easier than ever. But in societies where the male child is the cultural preference, patriarchy was able to work around apparently intransigent situations even before ultrasounds were introduced and abortions were legalized.
Female infanticide as a practice was rooted in many parts of the country. The clinical precision of the act was represented in the film Matribhoomi, where a newborn baby girl is fed milk and soon after drowned in a pot of milk. In families where this was not practiced, it would not be uncommon to have five to six female children with only the youngest being a boy. Women went through one pregnancy immediately after the other until a baby boy was born, severely impacting their own health and that of the children—all because the worth of that one boy was equivalent to all the daughters combined.
But families that recognized the long-term economic burden of such a situation either abandoned the childbearing woman for a new wife (due to their inability to produce an heir) or smothered baby daughters soon after birth. Statistics of infant deaths due to malnourishment and inadequate care would be a stark indication of the plight of newborn baby girls.
Incidentally, child swapping at hospitals is another phenomenon of modern India, where a woman who delivered a female child—depending upon the family's financial clout—is able to walk out with a male child!
The rise in dowry demands have only served to make the girl more unwanted. In many parts of the country even rearing a daughter is seen as "watering the neighbor's garden!" Hence, when graffiti at every corner screams out at you to "spend Rs.500 now and save Rs.500,000 later" even the most hurried calculation tells you where the profit lies: the former is the cost of sex determination while the latter figure represents the dowry needed to buy a husband for your grown daughter.
With a woman's worth coming from matrimony and even more from the ability to bear male children, the government's two child scheme only served to make this situation worse. Government employees were habitual offenders of the scheme since they had to lead by example. In many states in India, where the child sex ratio is skewed, there are loud whispers that infanticide was practiced even within families of political luminaries of the state, let alone smaller government officials and bureaucrats. What the ultrasound and other medical technologies did was to muffle these whispers because, for many, aborting a female fetus seemed easier and perhaps a lesser crime than making the girl go through life as a lesser being or murdered after birth. Sex-selective abortions are a phenomenon that grew more out of the ability to know the sex of your child and not from legalizing abortions, as evident from the already existent practice of infanticide.
The arrival of these machines saw the mushrooming of sex selection and abortion centers in the garb of natal and pre-natal clinics offering the right to "choose"—the ostensible signs of medical marvels reaching otherwise small towns still suspended somewhere between modernization and adulterated cultural beliefs. The first sex determination clinic in north India set up shop in Amritsar in Punjab in 1979. Two decades hence the results are there to see. The otherwise prosperous state has a dismal child sex ratio at 798 girls for every 1,000 boys.
This is not only a phenomenon in northern India; there are districts in some states where, quite "miraculously" there have been hardly any female births for months together. From a population sex ratio of 972 females per 1,000 males over a century ago, in 1901, the situation has only worsened in India with a count of 927 per 1,000 in 1991, improving marginally in 2001 at 933 per thousand men. Literacy or prosperity has little to do with these declining numbers and is evident in the fact that in Hoshiarpur, a district in Punjab, despite a literacy rate of 81.4 percent, its child sex ratio according to the last census had declined from 864 females in 1991 to 810 per 1,000 males.
A two-child policy would seem a proactive step in a country where reproductive health is one of the main concerns for half the population (now less than that!). But in the absence of a more sustained program for the girl child it carries the very real potential of actually working against both the woman and the girl child especially amidst sophisticated medical technology. And it is in this context of the imbalance in sex ratios that pro-choice activists and organizations working on issues of women's rights struggle with creating a space for contraception, abortion and an intolerance to sex-selective abortions.
More recently, under the recent palna, or cradle, scheme the government has undertaken the responsibility of bringing up the girl child if the parent is unwilling to. Unfortunately, it does nothing to address the issue of raising the levels of acceptability or worth of the girl child; if anything it only takes the devaluing of the baby girl a step forward in formalizing the abandonment. The Women and Child Development Minister's argument for the scheme—that "abandoning the child would indeed seem a lesser crime than killing her…"—sounds uncomfortably close to an anti-abortion diatribe; and coupled with the falling sex ratio can easily be an important tool for anti-abortionists. However, with over a 10 million fetuses—all female—aborted in the last two decades at the rate of 500,000 a year for the government, desperate situations call for desperate measures.
A complicated issue, sex-selective abortion needs to be seen exactly like that—without simplistic answers. While the agency of the woman in choosing to keep or terminate a pregnancy is unquestioned, how does one deal with this if it means termination of a pregnancy because of sex? And this is truly the irony of the situation: an argument meant to empower women and their bodily sovereignty can so easily be used to hijack the idea of agency for the woman while also wiping out a fifth of the female population of the country.
And yet … the gargantuan proportions of sex selection in India have created an atmosphere amongst portions of the progressive urban elite where even the knowledge of the sex of the expectant baby is viewed with suspicion—especially if the baby happens to be a boy. So if you don't want to be viewed as a gender discriminating parent, it's just better to be ill-prepared and shop for both pink and blue booties rather than paint the cradle room blue before the baby comes!