Sex-Selection Spawns Mislaid Antagonism against Abortions in India

Discrimination against girls leading to female infanticide and now to sex selection has always been a huge problem in India. In fact, the Female Infanticide Act was passed as long ago as 1870. But recently, the extremely skewed sex ratio of 702 girls for every 1000 boys in Beed in the Indian state of Maharashtra has caught the eyes of the media, of citizens, and of the government. Between them, these three sectors have led a campaign, which has unfortunately vilified abortions in general and overlooked the larger issue: gender discrimination and the reason why girls are unwanted.

This blog first addressed this issue during the week of June 19, with commentaries on forced pregnancies, the crackdown on abortion pills, and actor Aamir Khan’s show, Satyameva Jayate, which played a vital role in the misplaced war on abortions.

But more recently, important government officials, and prominent citizens including Aamir Khan, and editorials in some newspapers have repeatedly framed abortions carried out after sex-selection as “female feticide”, and have requested the state and central governments of the country to declare it murder. They suggest that the parents should be charged with homicide.

These emotional statements have inadvertently bred a lot of undeserved antagonism toward abortions. This is extremely unfortunate on two counts: Firstly, it increases the stigma against a vital, life-saving medical procedure which also allows women control over their own bodies and their fertility in the absence of unequal relationships and lack of access to adequate contraceptive methods. Studies have repeatedly shown that restricting access to abortions does not ever reduce abortions but makes more of them unsafe. The second problem is that it draws attention away from the near complete failure of the government in enforcing laws against traditional practices that create gender inequity, and in implementing progressive economic policies that enable women to participate as equal members of the workforce with paid maternity leave, equal pay for equal work etc.

Illegal abortions are already a huge problem in India, and are believed to account for 66% of all abortions done in the country. These clandestine, backstreet terminations happen because of the stigma against abortions, which is caused by social, cultural and religious understandings of life, and of the long standing patriarchal systems which need to control women’s fertility and thereby their sexuality. Framing abortions as ‘female feticide’ intensifies this stigma, drives sex-selection practices underground rather than prevent them completely and increases the rate of unsafe abortions.

Moreover, it is counterproductive to try to deal with  gender discrimination  by making medical facilities or pills less available to women. In fact, such denial is in itself  a form of discrimination, because it forces the woman to seek an unsafe alternative, and risk her life. Her life must be regarded as precious by her government, even if one of her reasons for seeking abortion can be condemned.

Sex-selection is not a stand-alone problem. It is a symptom of gender discrimination, which is traditionally entrenched and understandably very difficult for the government of any country to root out. But it is the duty of the government and its citizens to recognize such inequity and tackle it at every level with laws that create environments conducive to the welfare of female children. This will stop the preference shown to one gender at birth.

Read below what prominent women’s rights activists had to say about framing sex-selective abortions as murder. The article was published in the Mumbai Times of India on July 12, 2012 features Dr. Suchitra Dalvie of Asia Safe Abortion Partnership and Common Health.

Prominent women’s groups in the city strongly decried health minister Suresh Shetty’s proposal to seek an amendment to the existing anti-sex selection laws and invoke murder charges against persons involved in female foeticide.

“According to the PCPNDT Act, sex selection itself is a crime and the doctors involved should be punished as per the provisions of the act. The pregnant woman on whom sex selection is performed or undertaken is not an offender according to the act. This should be upheld in Maharashtra,” said a protest letter signed by organizations such as Stree Mukti Sanghatana, Forum Against Sex Selection, Akshara, All India Democratic Women’s Association, Population First, among others. The letter will be submitted to chief minister Prithviraj Chavan.

Nandita Shah of Akshara told TOI the issue was veering towards depriving women of their right to abortion, which was unacceptable. “We have always demanded the continuous and strict monitoring of sonography centres, hospitals and nursing homes and strict action against all unlicensed centres. Instead of concentrating on this issue and doctors who misuse medical technology, the discussion in the assembly focused on abortions,” said the letter, adding that such moves would curtail women’s access to safe abortion services.

Dr Suchitra Dalvie of Common Health said, “If one type of abortion is considered murder, then what do we consider the other abortions?” Medico-legal expert Dr Gopinath Shenoy said a 20-week-old foetus cannot sustain itself independently. “Hence, it cannot be considered a living entity. There is no question of murder.”

Dr Seshagiri Rao, who heads the Mumbai branch of the Family Planning Association of India, said medical termination of pregnancy cannot be termed as murder. “As long as a woman opts for an abortion in the legal timeframe of the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, it is not criminal. Even in later weeks, if a woman needs termination on medical grounds, she cannot be pulled up.” He said it is difficult to bring defaulters to task as it is difficult to prove that they conducted female foeticide. “Putting a murder charge is not the solution; the mindset of the society has to change.”

Dr Dalvie said, “It is unfortunate that we keep confusing sex-selection with abortions whereas the real problem is gender discrimination. We still read about families that starve, neglect, abandon, abuse and kill their female children. Our laws against dowry, child marriage, domestic violence and on equal inheritance need to be actively implemented in order to improve the lives of many Indian women.”

Creating an environment that is hostile towards healthcare providers will only reduce access to women, irrespective of their reasons for seeking abortion, and drive them to unsafe methods that could cost lives.

Dr Kalpana Apte, assistant secretary general of FPAI, said the practice of female foeticide has been going on for long. “It can’t be stopped overnight by adding a penal code. Moreover, these days, doctors are scared to conduct terminations even under medical conditions after 20 weeks. The problem can’t be solved at the service delivery stage; it has to be curbed at root level,” she said.

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About Shweta Krishnan

Shweta Krishnan was the Communication and Networking Officer For the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership between June 2012 and March 2014. She is a feminist writer with a background in medicine, and has a strong commitment to promoting sexual and reproductive rights for all.
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