Many young mothers are now faced with a soft, covert or sometimes outright demand for the amniocentesis test. “Our family needs a son – don’t worry, it’s all quite simple.”
Thanks to technology, choosing the sex of your child or planning a family has taken a whole new meaning in many parts of Asia. The amniocentesis test – meant to determine the foetus’ potential disabilities – is being used to select and abort female foetuses. What’s wrong with doing so? Why should there be a law against it? Isn’t it natural to want two children of different sexes?
What is it?
Sex selective abortions means that after administrating the amniocentesis test, the doctor or radiologist reveals the sex of the baby and the mother/family then decides to keep or abort the foetus. As abortion is legal in India, one is not violating the law. However, the doctor and the family asking for the sex of the foetus is violating the law. Why do families pay doctors to bypass the law?
The wish for a son and heir is prevalent in many families, mainly for three reasons: one is economic: many families still have to pay dowry for their daughters to get married; women are considered economic liabilities as they are considered dependents; and they do not inherit property. The other one is cultural: sons are seen to carry on the family name and they do the last rites for their elders. Lastly, the government’s 2 child norm has also created the impression that having one boy and one girl is ideal for a nuclear family.
For a long time, economic reasons were the prime ones. The latest Census  has put to rest that theory as it is evident that sex selective abortions are taking place more in the middle and upper classes, especially in urban areas. In fact the figures are so alarming that we need to think about this issue and not take it lightly.
So what if the sex ratio is skewed?
The 2011 census showed that there are 37 million more men than women in India. It means:
Men, from certain areas, will not find young or marriageable women in their own regions or communities and will have to try to find wives from those areas where the sex ratio is more balanced like the South and East of India.
In order to cater to such a demand, there will be an increase the trafficking in poor and illiterate girls – from rural areas as well as from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh – for the purpose of marriage.
It might change the dowry system in the sense that men will start paying dowry to women’s families.
Studies have also found a link between an abnormal sex ratio and violence by men.
Sounds like science fiction?
Yes, it does. The film “Matrubhoomi – A Nation without Women” (2003) is a good example. But trends are that we are fast arriving at such a scenario. A case in point is China. In 1978, China introduced the one child norm to bring down the population of the country. As married couples were bound to have only one child, many of them decided for a son to continue the ancestral line. They, too, like in India were using the sex determination test. The Chinese govt. promptly banned it but it did not help. The sex ratio is so lopsided that Chinese men are ‘importing’ wives from Myanmar, Vietnam and North Korea. There are agencies which supply them. One agency gave the assurance that if the wife runs away, they will replace her!
Types of Methods
There are various sex selective methods which used. We can generally distinguish between pre-natal and post-natal sex selection. It depends on whether the sex determination of the female foetus or fertilized egg leads to an abortion, or whether a newly born girl is eliminated.
One technologically advanced and often used method is pre-natal sex determination by ultra sonography or amniocentesis and the subsequent abortion of the female foetus (which is now being called female foeticide). This method is not restricted to urban, highly industrialised areas, but has been practiced via mobile clinics also in the rural parts of India. Pre-natal sex determination has been prohibited in India by the Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act (1994).
Apart from pre-natal sex determination, there are three major pre-implantation sex selection methods, which are less used but becoming popular:
- Sperm sorting: The sperm is sorted according to its sex and then used in IVF- or artificial insemination methods.
- Another method is pre-implantation genetics diagnostics. In this case, the embryo’s sex is tested and implanted if it has the ‘required’ sex. These two are not so much used in India since they are very expensive.
- Foetal DNA testing means that the pregnant woman’s blood is tested to identify the embryo’s sex. This is a rather new method that might become more popular in the future. It can be done easily: for example, the blood can be sent to a different country and the result is given online.
The rather traditional methods, that are still practiced in rural areas but have become less common, are female infanticide (the baby girl is killed shortly after her birth) and neglect (a girl child is given less and less nutritious food, her illness will rather not be treated, etc.). These traditional methods have been rather exceptional, as it needs a high level of acceptability by the respective community to commit female infanticide: since everyone in the village or the neighbourhood knows that the woman was pregnant, a female newborn cannot be killed unless it is accepted so that nobody will report it to the police.
Sex determination is illegal in India. Pre-natal sex determination has been prohibited by the Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act (PNDT1994) and the Pre-Conception PNDT (PCPNDT 2003). Female Infanticide clearly comes under the crime of murder.
The PNDT forbids sex determination as well as the following abortion of a female foetus or non-implantation of a female egg:
“3A. Prohibition of sex-selection – No person, including a specialist or a team of specialists in the field of infertility, shall conduct or cause to be conducted or aid in conducting by himself or by any other person, sex selection on a woman or a man or on both or on any tissue, embryo, conceptus, fluid or gametes derived from either or both of them.”
The PNDT further forbids clinics, doctors, etc. to promote any form of sex determination and termination methods. No. 22 states the
“Prohibition of advertisement relating to pre-natal determination of sex and punishment for contravention.”
The Act furthermore lists the penalties for both parties: those undertaking the tests as well as those asking for it. The PNDT Act 23(1) declares that a specialist undertaking such a test
“.. shall be punishable to imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees and on any subsequent conviction, with imprisonment which may extend to five years and with fine which may extend to fifty thousand rupees.”
A person seeking the aid of a centre or doctor offering sex determination tests can be punished with the same length of imprisonment as well as
“… with fine which may extend to
fifty thousand rupees for the first offence and for any subsequent offence with imprisonment which may extend to five years and with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.”
Although female foeticide and sex selective pre-implantation methods are forbidden, almost every week there are newspaper articles about clinics and doctors who have performed these tests and abortions of female foetuses.
People have to know that having a girl child is as wonderful as having a boy. To abolish son preference in the minds of people is the most important step against sex selection. If women are not seen as inferior to men, female foetuses will not be aborted. Accordingly, the dismissal of the dowry system would prevent sex selection in poor families where girl children become a financial burden. It will be a long process to establish gender balance by changing people’s mindset, but it is essential.
Several campaigns against sex selection have been launched to change people’s mindsets and to prevent sex selection. One of the first, was the Forum against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-selection (FASDSP), which was formed in Mumbai in 1985. In March 2010, the Sun Foundation started the campaign “Save the Girl Child” with Priyanka Chopra as their spokesperson. Many women’s and other groups are working on this issue to create public awareness on this crime against women.
In Kolhapur, a new scheme has been introduced, by which radiologists have to submit the mandatory F-forms (showing details of the pregnant woman such as her age, trimester, sex of children etc.) online instead of manually (as is for example still practiced in Mumbai). The Kolhapur model has proven to be very successful as reporting of data has risen by 50%.
What you can do
If you find out that a doctor or clinic performs sex determination tests, there are several steps that you can undertake:
You can go to the police and file and FRI
You can go to the local ward officer of the health department, and tell them about it. They will then do an investigation,
What do you do in case you are pregnant and your husband or in-laws pressurise you to have a sex determination test done? If you are strictly against that and have the courage, you should seek support from your parents, as well as from women’s organisations which can help you.
Please go the section called Support Organisations and choose your location and look for an organisation working on health. Or seek out a lawyer who can guide you.
CEHAT: Report – Study of cases registered under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act in State of Maharashtra, 2008
Tulsi Patel (ed.): Sex-Selective Abortion in India. Gender, Society and New Reproductive Technologies, Sage Publications 2007
Indira Jaising, C. Sathyamala and Asmita Basu: From the Normal to the Abnormal. Preventing Sex Selective Abortions Through the Law, Lawyer’s Collective 2007
An Initiative of Akshara, a women’s resource centre