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Bioethics @ TIU 2016-03-06 17:06:07

To a young man seeking to find a bride in India, one might be tempted to say, “Good luck. You’re going to need it!” According to the most recent government census (January 2016), there are only 944 females for every 1,000 males in the burgeoning population (approximately 626 million females and 668 million males). A main factor contributing to the gender imbalance in India is sex-selective abortions of female fetuses.

The sex ratio at birth – the number of girls born per 1,000 boys – has been declining for years, falling from 962 in 1981, to 945 in 1991, to 927 in 2001, to 914 in 2011. The India government is keenly aware of the problems associated with the skewed sex ratio at birth: “The decreasing sex ratio in this age group has a cascading effect on population over a period of time leading to diminishing sex ratio in the country. One thing is clear – the imbalance that has set in at this early age group is difficult to be removed and would remain to haunt the population for a long time to come.”

The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT ACT), passed in 1994 and amended in 2002, sought to stem the tide of sex-selective abortions, a purpose explicitly stated in the preamble: “An Act to provide for the prohibition of sex selection, before or after conception, and for regulation of prenatal diagnostic techniques for the purposes of detecting genetic abnormalities or metabolic disorders or chromosomal abnormalities or certain congenital malformations or sex-linked disorder and for the prevention of their misuse for sex determination leading to female foeticide; and, for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” Though parents and physicians are subject to a five-year jail term for requesting or conducting a prenatal sex test, the practice is thought to remain widespread.

As a response to the uneven results of the 1994 PCPNDT Act, Maneka Gandhi, the Indian Women and Child Development Minister, has suggested an opposite tactic, making prenatal sex tests compulsory. In her proposal, each pregnancy would be registered, the sex of the fetus would be disclosed to the parents, and the outcomes of the pregnancy would be tracked, all in an effort to minimize abortions of female fetuses. The secretary general of the Indian Medical Association, Dr. K. K. Aggarwal, thinks the idea has potential: “Such a step, if taken, will help institutionalize the safety of the girl foetus, which, in several parts of the country, is aborted because of societal obligations.”

However, not all government officials and health care workers share Dr. Aggarwal’s enthusiasm about Ghandi’s proposal. Some point to the bureaucratic nightmare of tracking each of India’s 27 million annual pregnancies. Others argue that the proposal would lead to a result opposite of its intention, the dramatic increase of sex-selective abortions.

Whether Gandhi’s proposal gains traction remains to be seen. Whether her plan would lead to the decrease or increase of female feticide is up for debate. What is clear is an irony associated with abortion practices. The right to abortion is typically hyped as a means to protect the lives, welfare, and health of women. Ironically, however, female fetuses are paying a disproportionate and deadly price for this “right” in India, China, and elsewhere. Sadly, abortion practices worldwide have led to what has been called “the missing women,” the millions and millions of female babies who were never born because of sex-selective abortions. The very “right” thought necessary to promote the value of women “already born” has, in tens of millions of cases, contributed to the devaluing of females in the womb “not yet born.”


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