Selecting for Sons: Indian Women in the US


Cross-posted from Biopolitical Times, the online publication of the Center for Genetics and Society.

Sex selection technologies and sex-selective abortion are legally prohibited in India, where their use in the service of son preference has produced dramatically skewed sex ratios. But Indian immigrants to the US face no official barriers to using new technologies to ensure the births of sons. Their experiences and voices are explored in a pioneering article in Social Science & Medicine by UC San Francisco medical doctor Sunita Puri and colleagues.

Puri conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews between 2004 and 2009 with 65 Indian women living in the US who had sought sex selection services. More than 40 percent of these women had attended college or graduate school; nearly a quarter worked as skilled professionals. More than three-quarters had terminated pregnancies following ultrasound determination of fetal sex; 15 percent had used sperm sorting and 6 percent pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. 

Both the women’s own comments and the authors’ summary statements reveal the fraught complexity of their reproductive decisions. While some of the women protested son preference, gender inequality, and their subordination in reproductive decision-making, the authors note that they were acutely aware of “the elevated status and security of women with sons….[T]hey recognized that having a son ensured respect, stability, and acceptance in their marital homes.”  

Most of the interviewees spoke of significant pressure to bear a son. About two-thirds experienced direct verbal pressure from a mother-in-law or sister-in-law; about 20 percent identified their husband as the primary source; and many noted their husband’s silence in the face of pressure from other family members:

My mother in law stopped eating… She said she would starve unless she had a grandson. My husband did nothing. He asked me every day, `Do you want my mother to die?’

A third of the women described physical abuse and neglect related specifically to their failing to produce a male child. They reported threats of divorce or abandonment; withholding of food, water, rest and medical care during pregnancies with a female fetus; and violence including being kicked in the abdomen in an attempt to terminate a pregnancy. 

Puri and her colleagues point out that “while reproductive technologies have traditionally been viewed as presenting women with increased reproductive liberty…technological advances can actually decrease the scope of women’s reproductive choice.” Their informants recognized this, acknowledging that “ultrasound technology not only allowed them to pursue sex selection, but its ready availability and legality in the U.S. increased the pressure and even obligation to use it.”

Their article’s title – “`There is such a thing as too many daughters, but not too many sons': A qualitative study of son preference and fetal sex selection among Indian immigrants in the United States” – is echoed in their poignant conclusion:

By addressing these multi-dimensional social and medical-technological issues, we hope that the perceived burden of “too many daughters” may someday be referenced only in its historical context.

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  • crowepps

    A third of the women described physical abuse and neglect related specifically to their failing to produce a male child. They reported threats of divorce or abandonment; withholding of food, water, rest and medical care during pregnancies with a female fetus; and violence including being kicked in the abdomen in an attempt to terminate a pregnancy. 

    Excellent description of how the culture is abusive towards these women and treats them like vending machines for sons.  Honestly, if that was my life experience, if I was abused and harassed and devalued and ordered around, I would abort all of my daughters out of love for them to prevent them from becoming abused slaves.  I would encourage everyone around me to abort all of their daughters out of love for them to prevent them from becoming abused slaves.  Eventually those abusive husbands and mother-in-laws would realize there are never going to any GRANDchildren because there won’t be any wives for sons they coveted.  I find it really obscene that all too often the media and feminist focus is on “how horrible those MOTHERS are for allowing sex selection”.  It’s not THEIR idea, they are the person in the situation with the least amount of power, and if people really wanted to help them they should focus on the MEN.

  • equalist

    It’s also the sister-in-laws and mother-in-laws, women who are on some other end of the pregnancy, but still have power over the women actually carrying the pregnancies.  It’s an issue that permeates the entire culture, and must be addressed at the roots, not just in the men, or the pregnant women specifically, but we must attempt to reach every individual who has influence over a woman who is, or who may become pregnant.

  • arekushieru

    The reason these women partake in those roles, though…?  Is because of the patriarchy and the control these men have over the other women’s lives.  They are the root of it and, often, digging out the root, solves most, if not all, of the problems. 

  • elburto

    When I lived in an ultra-orthodox Jewish area I saw this too.  The biblical mandate of ‘pru ervu’ means sons must be produced, and the woman must endure pregnancy after pregnancy until that happens.  Marriages can be rabbinically annulled for failure to produce sons.  I’ve seen young women of 18/19 on their 3rd pregnancy, with two or more babies to care for, suicidal because they keep having girls.

     

    Women are grossly undervalued in this world.

  • equalist

    While this is true, the women supporting the patriarchial society should receive some focus as well.  Ignoring them as a cause or support and focusing entirely on the men involved, is to ignore their value just as the value of women as a whole is ignored in such societies.  To push all of the blame onto the men is to say of the women supporting the system that “They don’t know what they’re doing, it’s just the men making them do it” or “They don’t have enough influence to worry with.”  Aren’t these things exactly the views of women we as pro choice advocates fight against?

  • crowepps

    The men are benefitting from and attempting to perpetuate an outdated concept of patriarchcy wherein men are in control of women and punish them for getting out of line.

     

    The women are divided into those who want to overthrow the system of slavery altogether, those who want to convince the slavemaster to voluntarily surrender his power, those who run away into feminist enclaves and avoid men, and those who enforce the patriarchal norms because they believe they are ‘protective’ of women — that the ‘care’ provided under the master-slave relationship is safer for a woman than risky independence.

     

    I don’t think it’s a case of the men “making them do it”, I think it’s a case of them being so indoctrinated in the system that they believe that the system is a human norm, inescapable, and that the way to survive in it is to enforce compliance on other women — be submissive, be pure, be moral, be a contented cow, and then none of us will get beaten.  Consider how often we hear the argument that because the women in Group A are getting abortions, the women in Group B shouldn’t be entitled to child support.  That’s a blatant threat — make your sisters toe and line, drive them away from abortion clinics and back into the breeding pens, or the failure to stamp out their uppityness is going to result in ALL children going hungry.

     

    The meme is the prisoners better monitor each other’s behavior and punish noncompliance themselves or everyone gets punished, and it’s always standard operating procedure for slaveholders or those running prisoner of war or reeducation camps.  It’s so much a part of the patriarchial system that nobody even seems to notice just how grotesque it is that men are willing to threaten, hurt and even kill their own children in order to cling to the illusion that they control women.

  • equalist

    I’m not saying respond to the women pushing this culture in the same way as we would the men, I’m just saying they need to be addressed too.