The debate surrounding abortion has been a long and complex one. In the West, the right to abortion has been opposed by ‘pro-life’ groups – those who believe that abortion is the “murdering of a child” and is hence unethical – or by orthodox Christian denominations, who believe that a child is a gift from God and hence “should be protected from the moment of its conception” (they also think that sex for pleasure is immoral, and ban contraception). The historic Roe v Wade judgement legalized abortion in America in 1973, but in India, the situation is entirely different. In fact, Abortion has been legal in India (albeit with certain caveats) much before the West.
The law that permits abortion in India (the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971) has genuinely helped a lot of women, but it has also had repercussions that are far more disturbing. One of the reasons that this act cites for allowing abortion was that of family planning and population control; but while that is a legitimate concern, many regressive families use this as an excuse for female foeticide instead.
Due to deep-seated patriarchal discrimination, there is a cultural preference for male children over female children, and this horrifying preference manifests itself through cases of female foeticide – when women are forced to undergo an abortion because they are carrying a girl child.
What facilitates the frequency of these forced abortions are medical practices that involve sex determination of a foetus while it’s still in the womb. Though a series of government legislations have banned such pre-natal sex determinations of foetuses in various states across India, these practices still continue to be prevalent. According to the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003, ultrasound clinics, genetic counselling centres and other medical facilities are prohibited from conducting pre-natal diagnostic checks except for detecting chromosomal abnormalities or genetic diseases, but from 2003 to 2014, only 206 doctors conducting these illegal tests had been convicted by the state, while others continue to go scot-free. Especially in states like Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab (which have recorded the highest number of cases of sex determination and foeticide), young women in both rural and urban settings are constantly being forced to abort their babies.
In various rural spaces, wives (who are often very young) are treated simply as vessels for reproduction, and made to live in abject conditions with no property or inheritance rights. And when these women are forced into aborting their female foetuses, they don’t have the means to protest. But urban spaces aren’t immune from these practices too. Even in the most affluent and literate of families, such prejudices exist and female foeticide occurs because of the desire for male heirs.
In a society that in many cases is riddled with regressive beliefs and practices such as the give-and-take of dowry, of child marriage, way too many families see the girl child as a liability..There’s also a moral discontentment associated with having girls because they are still seen as the weaker sex, and their bodies seen as something forbidden and sinful. Hence, these families choose to end the lives of their children in the womb itself – and in multiple cases, the mother’s full consent is absent. she is either duped into the abortion or emotionally and physically manipulated into it. As a result, the sex-ratio in India’s population (which is currently 943 women per 1000 men) continues to remain worryingly unequal. A 2011 study by British medical journal Lancet found that up to 12 million Indian female foetuses had been aborted in the previous three decades.
In 2014, the United Nations found that the dwindling number of Indian girl children had reached “emergency proportions” and was in fact, contributing to crimes against women – such as more moral policing, sexual violence and other forms of discrimination. Statistically, the lesser the number of girl children, the more prone they were to violence and repression
In January 2015, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (in collaboration with the HRD Ministry and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launched the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign which addressed a number of issues faced by the girl child in the country, including that of female foeticide. The programme has targeted 100-odd districts and areas where cases of gender discrimination have been statistically the highest and have attempted to spread awareness about the evils of foeticide and forced abortions. One of the methods employed in the programme was influencing the matriarchal heads of family (who, ironically enough, usually decide whether or not the baby lives), and that has surprisingly lead to important results. Government reports show that in these 100 districts the number of female children in both families and state-run orphanages have gone up by hundreds. But the fact remains that these are only 100 districts, and many places still remain unmonitored and continue to perpetuate violence against both female foetuses and girl children.
Other than that, individual lawsuits continue to be filed against doctors and clinics who carry out these practices, and these have yielded mixed results – some being successfully heard, and some still in limbo.
The Bombay High Court in September 2016 came out with a progressive judgement that, in amendment to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, upheld the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy if it was unwanted. But the same law, when applied to practices of female foeticide ends up being conflicting indeed.
One cannot view sex selection and female foeticide through the lens of the pro-choice debate because in most cases, it lacks the most important aspect – the consent of the mother. And even when there is consent from the mother, the circumstances here are very different from the kind of pregnancy termination that the Bombay High Court judgement (or the Roe v Wade judgement) addresses – because female foeticide inherently stems from a gender bias. Here the violence perpetrated has a specific target, and is a result of patriarchal oppression so to categorize it alongside an abortion which occurs as a result of a woman exercising her agency makes the equation extremely skewed.
Should we, then, take a pro-life outlook when it comes to girl children? This, again, is a complex and debatable issue because the choice should ideally lie with the mother, since it’s her body at the end of the day. But what if the mother’s choice is coloured by gender biases?
Hence, the problems of foeticide and forced abortions in India cannot be as easily contemplated upon in ethical terms created by Western standards of looking at abortion. Here, abortion is gendered on a dual level, and is not just about the female agency of the mother, but also intimately related to the gender of a child. So when we talk about abortion from an Indian context, it’s important for us to take into account all these various sides to the issue.