A couple of weeks ago, Dr Anil Sabhani, a doctor in Haryana, and his assistant Kartar Singh, were sent to jail for two years for revealing the sex of an unborn baby. Sabhani and Singh were caught in a sting operation: the pregnant woman who visited their clinic was actually working with the police. She was specially sent to the clinic to find out if the doctor would do the ultrasound, or sonographic sex-testing.
The law the two were arrested and tried under was put in place in 1994, and is called the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technique (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act. Their jailing made it to all the newspapers because since the law came into effect this has actually been the first time someone has been caught, arrested and sentenced under the law.
Why is it wrong to find out the sex of an unborn baby, or foetus as it is scientifically called? After all, it would save the parents and relatives so much trouble to know in advance whether their baby is a boy or a girl. They could buy the right clothes and toys and plan properly for the future...
The crime can actually get bigger than finding out the sex of the foetus. Very often, if the foetus is female, it is aborted. This type of abortion is known as sex-selective abortion, or killing of a foetus if it is not of the desired sex.
It’s this second step that turns the whole thing into a criminal act. Pregnant women who visit their doctors have a number of tests done, to check both their health and the health of their baby. Many of these tests allow the doctor to know the sex of the child long before it is born. But the doctor is not supposed to tell the parents what the sex of the foetus is, in case the parents decide to abort it.
Sex-determination in itself is not illegal. And in India abortion is not illegal either. Abortion is considered a woman’s right, a way of family planning, so that the woman is not forced to have children she does not want, or cannot look after. In this sense, abortion is a way of allowing women to have control over their own bodies (instead of the men who got them pregnant).
So, if abortion is not illegal why should parents not be able to decide the sex of their baby? It is their baby after all, and they will have to look after it when it is born. So what if they prefer girls over boys, or boys over girls? Maybe they already have two boys and want to have a girl next. Why not let them decide?
The problem is it doesn’t quite work that way. In India, boys and girls are not given equal preference. In our culture most families, especially families that are poor or conservative and old-fashioned, prefer boys. Girls are seen as being a burden and inferior to boys. There is also the problem of dowry. If you have girls you have to pay their dowry when they get married. If you have boys, you get the dowry. The choice only works one way: sex-selection is used to kill only female foetuses, never male ones.
Science and technology have made such sex-based killing a lot easier. A sonography, where ultrasound waves act as radio waves do in radar, can be done easily and the equipment needed is not very expensive. Nor does it require much training to handle it. The machine fits easily into the back of a car and can be carried even to remote areas. Abortions are easily done these days, with little danger to the mother, if done properly. So doctors can make a lot of money off the cultural prejudices of people, by helping them get rid of unwanted female foetuses.
But if this is what people want, what’s wrong with it?
Any modern civilisation should value its girls as much as its boys, its women as much as its men. A country that does not recognise that girls and boys are equal, and give them both the same opportunities, is a backward one. One can understand that perhaps for historical and economic reasons, poor people find girls a burden; that there are conservative and backward people who do not understand that girls and boys can contribute equally. But should well-educated and scientifically trained people, such as doctors, allow such people to stay that way? Should they not be using their training to help them progress and catch up with the modern world? Should technology be used to change things for the better, or keep things the way they are?
One of the things that’s happened because of sex-selection is that gender ratios (the number of females to males) have changed dramatically. Normally, in any country or region, there should be an equal number of men and women. This ensures that society stays stable, and that there are enough women and men to marry each other. But, thanks to sex-selection, these ratios have altered drastically, especially in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab. Now there are about 861 girls for every 1,000 boys in Haryana, and the situation is worse in Punjab, which has 776 girls for every 1,000 boys.
How did this happen? It has been estimated that around 20,000-25,000 female foetuses are aborted every year in Haryana, and about 40,000 in Punjab. In case you think that this is a rural thing that only takes place in backward villages far away from big towns, around 23,000 female foetuses a year are aborted in Delhi alone. Totally, all over India, according to a reputed international medical journal, 500,000 female foetuses are killed every year!
With these sorts of numbers showing how little we in India value our girls, is it still okay for people to have a choice in determining the sex of their child?
-- Manoj Nadkarni
InfoChange News & Features, April 2006