Technology and its Impact on Female Feticide in India



In an age when females have made progress in almost every field, there are people who still accord a lower status to women. In some of our Indian societies, while a childless woman is perceived as incomplete, one who has given birth to daughters is partially complete. Only the one who has produced a son enjoys a status of sorts. The problem is intimately related to the institution of dowry. “If it’s a girl child, we will have to spend first on her education and then on her marriage and dowry … It doesn’t stop there. We will also have to meet some of her expenses after marriage. How I wish I could get a son!”

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Social pressures in India, and the presence of low-cost technologies like ultrasound, have led to sex-based abortion of female fetuses, and an increasingly smaller percentage of girls born each year.

The bias against females is also related to the fact that sons are looked at as a type of insurance. Even our religions have been prejudiced towards women. According to Manu, a woman has to be reborn as a man to attain moksha (redemption). A man cannot attain moksha unless he has a son to light his funeral pyre. Also, it says a woman who gives birth to only daughters may be left in the eleventh year of marriage. It is a common saying in India, Ladka marey kambakth ka; Ladki marey bhaagwaan ki(“It’s a fool who loses his male child and the fortunate one who loses a girl child”). Obviously, it shows the gender bias in our male-dominated, patriarchal society.

Prevalence and Spread of Female Feticide
In India, the practice of sex-selective abortion or female feticide (in which an unborn baby is aborted or killed before birth simply because it is not a boy) is only the latest manifestation of a long history of gender bias, evident in the historically low and declining population ratio of women to men. Moreover, the medical fraternity in India has been quick to see entrepreneurial opportunities in catering to the insatiable demand for a male child. Until recently, the technology was prohibitively expensive.

The three chief pre-natal diagnostic tests that are being used to determine the sex of a fetus are amniocentesis, chronic villi biopsy (CVB) and ultrasonography. Amniocentesis is meant to be used in high-risk pregnancies, in women over 35 years. CVB is meant to diagnose inherited diseases like thalassaemia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. Ultrasonography is the most commonly used technique. It is non-invasive and can identify up to 50 per cent of abnormalities related to the central nervous system of the fetus. But sexing has become its preferred application.

A ban on the government departments at the centre and in the states, making use of pre-natal sex determination for the purpose of abortion — a penal offence — led to the commercialization of the technology; private clinics providing sex determination tests through amniocentesis multiplied rapidly and widely. These tests are made available in areas that do not even have potable water, with marginal farmers willing to take loans at 25 per cent interest to have the test. Advertisements appear blatantly encouraging people to abort their female fetuses in order to save the future cost of dowry. The portable ultrasound machine has allowed doctors to go from house to house in towns and villages. In a democracy it is difficult to restrict right to business and livelihood if the usual parameters are fulfilled.

Female Feticide and Law
There has been an inability to discuss the issue of feticide without the larger debate on abortion, which is legally allowed and has been seen as a triumph of the women’s rights movement in the country. India has allowed abortion on broad medical and social grounds since the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act was passed in 1971. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act and Rules 1994 (PCPNDT) mandates that sex selection by any person, by any means, before or after conception, is prohibited. But while the Act seeks to regulate and prevent misuse of pre-natal diagnostic techniques, it rightly cannot deny them either. The PNDT Act allows pre-natal diagnosis only for chromosomal abnormalities, genetic metabolic disorders and congenital abnormalities. The law, however permits ultrasound clinics, clinics for medical termination of pregnancies and assisted reproductive facilities as a routine matter and as a legitimate business.

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In addition, there is the legally binding Code of Medical Ethics, constituted by the Indian Parliament in the Medical Council Act, 1956 that many doctors ignore. Doctors are legally bound to report medical malpractice. The PCPNDT Act mandates that any person conducting ultrasonography or any other pre-natal diagnostic technique must maintain proper records. The Act requires the filling up of a written form, duly signed by the expectant mother, as to why she has sought diagnosis. Violations are punishable by imprisonment and a fine. The law also permits abortions for failure of contraception. It is a huge challenge for the government to detect violations of the PNDT Act, since it is a crime of collusion and by consensus.

The Ground Reality
It is not only the poor, but even the middle classes and the rich in India that are biased against the girl child and women. The provisional figures of the 2001 Census, which has astonished even the Health Department, show that the Child Sex Ratio (CSR the number of girls in the age group of 0 to 6 years per thousand boys of the same age group) has declined sharply from 945 females per 1000 males in 1991 to 927 females a decade later. Furthermore, the CSR is actually worse than the national average in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Chandigarh, Uttaranchal, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, UP, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Daman and Diu. The Overall Sex Ratio (OSR, which looks at the ratio of all females to males, and not just those in the 0-6 age group) is even worse in places like Chandigarh (773:1000), Delhi (821:1000), and Punjab (874:1000). Health experts say these are some of the lowest sex ratios in the world.

During the final decade of the last millennium, the CSR recorded its highest fall, dropping 18 points from 945 to 927. However, during the same decade, the OSR recorded its highest gain, rising 6 points from 927 to 933. In every census since 1951, the two ratios have gone more or less hand in hand, dropping steadily except in the late 1970s The sudden fall in the number of girls in the youngest age group is believed to be proof of the increased incidence of sex-selective abortions or female feticide. Most of these abortions are the result of the misuse of sex determination technologies such as ultrasound scanning and amniocentesis.

What is a woman’s role in all this? Does her choice or decision really matter when choosing a spouse, contraception methods, the first pregnancy or place of delivery? Is it really possible for a woman to decide about having an abortion, if she has to survive as a daughter-in-law in the family? Let’s assume her husband supports the birth of a female child. Even then she may prefer to have a male child in order to get respect from her in laws’ family, in order to save her marriage.

If a woman doesn’t have any say in this matter, a good case can be made that female feticide is an act of violence against women.

A Cure?
So where is the cure of this disease? With law? Doctors in India believe 2 million fetuses are killed every year through abortion, simply because they are female, even though it is an illegal practice. And with the increasing availability of sex determination tests it is impossible to keep track of such cases. There is little doubt that in India the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act 1994, has not been very effective. The facts revealed by the census speak for themselves. We need, rather, to attempt more broad-reaching strategies that will address the economic and cultural roots of the problem.

What Can be Done?
Fully understanding that an evil such as this cannot be addressed in isolation, we are also closely examining related social malaise such as dowry, women’s underemployment and exploitation in the society, education standards of the girl child as well as high-school dropouts amongst the girls, early marriages and the arranged marriage system. It is our endeavor to develop sustainable development models for each of the above listed social malaise in India so that these have an impact on improving the ratio of females in Indian society.

Earlier articles about the Datamation Foundation and its Work

1. Death in the Womb Sex Selection Law Fails To Check Foeticide; Anna Dani
2. The Social Context of Sex Selection and the Politics of Abortion in India; Radhika Balakrishnan
3. A Boy for You, a Girl for Me: Technology Allows Choice; Rob Stein
4. Female Foeticide: The collusion of the medical establishment; Lalitha Sridhar
5. Why this gender bias towards womankind?; SPK
6. Abortion vs. selective conceiving or heading toward imbalanced society?; Puneet Kaur
7. Sociological perspective of female foeticide; Manmeet Kaur
8. “The two-child norm only leads to female foeticide”; Madhu Gurung
9. Sex ratio: the hidden horrors; Pavan Nair



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One Response to Technology and its Impact on Female Feticide in India

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