This is the fourth 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.
Abortion as a right has been legally available to the Indian woman since 1971. But it would appear that abortion is allowed to be practiced socially by the Indian woman only under one condition – and that is if the fetus is female. In fact, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971 was really more a population control measure than a progressive right available to women. Fearing that poverty hinged on population explosion, the Indian government launched and coercively implemented a completely anti-democratic population control program where legalizing abortion was simply intended to shift the onus for population control onto women. Hence, it is hardly surprising that few activists dealing with women's issues recognize the legalization of abortions as a triumph of progressive politics.
With state-driven population control policies compelling women to control their fertility, it took sex-selective abortion little time to take root in a societal system that progressively devalues the female sex within deeply entrenched patriarchal practices. And over three decades later the government, on the pretext of dealing with sex-selective abortion, is set to take away an extremely important right that was legally available to half the population. So now the state has chosen to nudge itself into the already crowded space of the reproductive autonomy of women.
A feminist discourse on reproductive rights rests as much on the notion of procreative liberty – the right to reproduce as well as the right to avoid reproduction. But in the Indian context (as also the larger Asian context) the statistics reflecting the abuse of this choice carry the danger of hijacking the argument and consolidating opinion among those who oppose abortion access. And way in which the Ministry for Women and Child Development is choosing to deal with the issue makes it look more like a matter of concern with regard to statistics rather than a concern of deep-rooted socio-cultural perspectives and practices.
Sex-selective abortions do not happen because there aren't enough laws to control the practice. Sex-selective abortions happen because too many doctors illegally practicing them have gotten away with it. And too many families have been practicing sex-selective abortion for too long without any social, moral or legal sanction. Nothing has been done to rectify the deeply entrenched devaluation of the women within the household, and schemes by the government have only reinforced the age-old beliefs that there is indeed a social justification – and now a state sanction – for abandoning women at will, whether it be at the parental home – at birth – or many years later at the marital home by the husband. What needs to be recognized is that the victims are the same, and it is the same society that is the aggressor and it is at this level that the issue needs to be redressed and social norms, values and accompanying practices reconstructed.
We must realize that instead of giving more space and rights to the woman and her control over her body – in the excuse of protecting her from the age-old pillars of patriarchy – every scheme and every law tends towards being more restrictive and confining for the woman. Who should decide whether the termination of pregnancy is justified? Members of the marital home who only want to rear a son? The medical practitioner, who in many cases assists the abortions of female fetuses? Will a new law (despite the fact that laws against sex selection already exist) cause the good doctor to turn a new leaf overnight? Any new amendments to old laws – or old schemes in newer packages – to prevent sex selection require a fair share of skepticism given that they bring the possibility of edging out women's rights further and complicating pro-choice arguments.
Globalization tends to make us believe in the universality of rights. But with a plethora of sub-worlds, sub cultures, and modernities jostling for space in this global context, the issue of rights within this macro discourse has to be looked at from these multiple contexts. In a situation where a legal abortion is still a struggle, advances in assisted reproductive technologies and embryology (enabling selective implantation of embryos of the desired sex) might be an acceptable reality; elsewhere, in another reality, its moral acceptance would need to be debated within its specific cultural milieu because hidden within the nooks and crannies of these multiple contexts is the specific context of the female person whose needs find themselves circumscribed in most discourses. One law after the other is enacted and implemented ostensibly in her name without really assessing the reality of her socio-cultural position and the needs generated by virtue of that position. Thus, it continues to be a tight-rope walk where, while it is urgently required to recognize the genocidal nature of sex selection, it is equally important not to confuse it with the agenda behind the misappropriation of the definitions of reproductive choices.