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Sex-selective Abortion in India: Asking and Answering the Questions

Beloo Mehra, PhD


Published in Sulekha, April 2003

Introduction
Research on Sex-Selective Abortion in India: Evidence, Arguments, and Rhetoric
Locating Indian Missing Women in Global Gender-gap
Abortion: Sex-Selective or Otherwise
Concluding Thoughts
Introduction
Barbara Miller coined the phrase The Endangered Sex. Amartya Sen used the phrase Missing
Women. They were referring to those who are also known simply as Unborn Girls.
These are examples of some of the sensationalist terminology social scientists and activists have
been using to highlight the problem of female infanticide or female feticide in India. In this
article, I will mostly use the more value-neutral term sex-selective abortion though at certain
places references to other terms will be made to emphasize or highlight a point.
This article presents an analysis of a month-long intense discussion that happened at IndDiaspora
surrounding this highly charged (emotionally, politically, and culturally) topic of sex-selective
abortion. The purpose of this article is NOT to project any one particular understanding of the
issue. Instead, the objective is to tie together several different opinions, facts, interpretations, and
arguments in some sort of a thematic analysis that provides readers with a multi-faceted view of
the issue(s). I believe such a layered presentation can then allow for more critical discussion and
dialogue among the readers.
It all started when I posted an article that appeared in October 24, 2002 edition of The Hindustan
Times. The article, titled Death of an Unborn Girl was written by Arundhuti Roy Chaudhury.
Citing the dramatic drop in the sex ratio of the girl child population in the 0-6 age group, from
962 girls per 1,000 boys in 1981 to 945 girls/1,000 boys in 1991, and 927 girls/1,000 boys in
2001 as one of the disquieting trends that surfaced in the 2001 census, she asks the question:
Are girls being deliberately eliminated? Is technology (ultrasonography, amniocentesis, chorion
villi biopsy, foetoscopy, material serum analysis, etc.) assisting in this systematic elimination?
Her reply: To a great extent, yes.

The article was enough to spark a passionate discussion on the topic, as is obvious from this
reaction by a fellow member:
As usual, Arun(dhat tere ki) Roy - if indeed she is the same person - is back to her well honed
tricks; making unwarranted linkages, jumping to conclusions and generally playing the class
clown with considerable success, It speaks volumes of the mush that Indians have for brains that
they swallow Roy's concoctions with nary a croak while she goes laughing & cackling all the
way to her bank vault.
What exactly is Roy recommending? Clearly, she is not against abortions, only female abortions.
More specifically, she is focusing on the relative differences in abortion rates by gender i.e.
abortion is fine as long as it is split 50-50 between males/ females. And she wants taxpayer
money to be spent on enforcing this mathematical equality? What exactly is she smoking?
Impressive and colorful response this might be, the critical questions in this debate however are
these: are all abortions wrong? For anyone to raise a voice against female feticide, does the
person have to first take a position against all abortions? Why? Are the reasons for any abortion
same as reasons for selective abortion of a female fetus? What kind of evidence has been
presented to suggest that sex-selective abortion is a problem in India? What does research
suggest as possible reasons for the declining sex ratios in India? Should we look at the issue of
declining sex ratio in India in a global comparative framework? Should we also study the issue
of sex-selective abortion in India within the context of a larger debate on abortion in India and
elsewhere?
Our discussions at IndDiaspora covered many of these questions. At times it was obvious that
people held on strongly to their positions, but at other times it was also clear that the passionate
and frank discussion allowed people to see alternative perspectives on this very complex issue.
When I first collated and sorted through all the posts on this thread, several important issues
begin to emerge, including:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.

Freedom to make decisions regarding ones reproductive choices: Indian women vs.
Western women
Familial and social pressures to bear a male child/heir
Personally heard stories or lived experiences: Are these anecdotal evidence enough to
consider sex-selective abortion an Indian problem?
Is girl child considered a liability?: Social and economic reasons
Education and empowerment of women
Role of sex-determination technology: Problem or a solution?

As complex and worth discussing as all these issues are, much has already been written by
scholars, social activists, feminists, policy experts, religious leaders at national and
international levels. Further reading and analysis of the IndDiaspora discussions led me to focus
on those selected themes of the debate that are not fully explored in the current literature on this

issue1. These selected themes, which are by themselves interconnected and complex, also
provide contextual framework for all the above six and any other themes that may emerge in
readers follow-up discussions. The three themes discussed in this paper are:
A. Research on Sex-Selective Abortion in India: Evidence, Arguments, and Rhetoric
B. Locating Indias Missing Women in Global Gender-gap
C. Abortion: Sex-Selective or Otherwise
Within each of these themes, there are several sub-topics and issues worth serious reflection and
discussion. As and when needed, I will be making references to other related issues that were
discussed at IndDiaspora, including but not limiting to the six pointed earlier.

Research on Sex-Selective Abortion in India: Evidence, Arguments, and Rhetoric


We spent enough time in our conversations exploring what hard facts exist on this topic of sexselective abortion in India. We wanted to know who are doing investigations on this issue, how
and what conclusions are they reaching at. One member set up the challenge this way:
Do [we] know of any scientific study on this phenomenon? Or are we freelancing strictly by
newspaper reports? Now, we could be true post-modernists and simply dispense with facts and
move on to lived experiences. Here again, maybe I'm not moving in the right circles but this is
simply not *my* lived experience. Nobody in our immediate family has done this; none from our
extended families; none of my friends & none of my colleagues at work have done this. At least I
haven't heard of any such thing and this covers about a 100 families. So, who exactly is doing
this? Maybe we're all doing this but simply not telling anyone about it? But then, if this is such a
culturally accepted thing, then there is really no reason *not* to talk about it openly, is there?
Btw, do you know of anyone in your family or extended family that has selectively aborted even
one female?...if you have no hard evidence or lived experiences to support your claim, then let
me ask you in all seriousness: from where and how did you arrive at your opinion of genderpreferred abortions in India? Actually, this question is open for anyone in this forum to answer.
Another member responded:
Nobody may be able to furnish the proof you seek to satisfy you that female foeticide is
happening. People do not exactly advertise these things. Just as teenagers in India may not go on
TV and say "You know, my uncle raped / molested me the other day" even though it is an
acknowledged truth that familial incest is an ugly, largely unreported, not just underreported
problem in India. AS IT IS IN OTHER COUNTRIES I AM SURE.
But as we soon found out, there is enough evidence. The reliability and credibility of that
evidence may be questionable, and the sponsoring or funding sources of these investigations
1

All the conversations at IndDiaspora, when compiled in a Word file, made up for a 182-page file. So it was
essential to limit the scope of this article in order to not lose reader interest.

may be open for discussion. One may also choose to believe or reject this evidence depending
on ones viewpoint, but as a group interested in finding whats really going on here we looked at
some of this evidence.
The first, most readily available source we looked into is available in the form of a report at
Harvard Universitys website2. While we can't verify the accuracy of the report, we considered
using it as a starting point.
We found out about Prof. Sunil Khanna, an associate professor of Anthropology at Oregon State
University's College of Liberal Arts. For the past 10 years, he has conducted extensive research
on female feticide and has worked with an activist group in India that is lobbying the government
to address the problem3. Khanna's analysis may probably seem as what some would call as neocolonialist4. But it helped us ask several relevant questions in our investigation. As one member
pointed out:
One stark fact immediately jumps out at you. For the 20 year period covered from 1982 to
present between the two links, there is *not a single documented case* that any of the
"researchers" can cite! This is despite the fact of...
1. Massive foreign funding having been poured into research efforts like Khanna's, setting up &
operating NGOs in Mumbai, publications etc. For example, even back in 1982 they had
sufficient funds to survey over 2000 physicians, set up functioning offices, publish reports,
organize protests, lobby the government etc, etc, etc. This was just in Mumbai alone.
2. This issue being supposedly so "prevalent" in society that anybody can see what was
happening, daily (even by the hour).
Good observations, but here is another side to this - are we saying that because these facts are
hard to come by, that there is no problem? Even Indian doctors writing in medical journals have
admitted that it is a common knowledge that selective abortions of females are taking place5.
How did this become common knowledge if it is not happening? Are all these people just
following the line of Eurocentric, neo-colonialist foreign NGOs, UNFPA, UN, women's
organizations etc.?
A member pointed out that without hard facts it is difficult to get a clue of the size, the scope, the
specific nature of the problem. He continued:
2

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/Organizations/healthnet/SAsia/articles/sexdetermination2.html

Some details of Khannas work can be found at: http://www.orst.edu/Dept/anthropology/sunres1.htm

See for example http://www.orst.edu/dept/ncs/newsarch/2002/Jun02/abort.htm


4

S.S Sheth & A. N. Malpani, Inappropriate use of new technology: Impact on womens health, International Journal
of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 58 (1997) 159-165; V. Hingorani & G. Shroff, Natural sex selection for safe
motherhood and as a solution for population control, International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 56 (1995)
S169-S171.

How can we be blind to the fact that many outsiders deliberately avoid going into hard facts
not because it is "hard" to get evidence but because they want to leave things precisely at a
general level to implicate the entire culture instead of targeting culpable individuals?
One can readily agree to these arguments, but the question remains: why have all these so-called
educated people, including statisticians, doctors, social workers etc. been assuming all this time
that there is a problem? Let us hypothesize for a minute. So, some group of people somewhere
looked at the census data and made an on-the-spot conclusion that it must be because people are
selectively aborting female fetuses. And everybody just ran with the idea. Scholars in the West
learned about it and obviously made up a story about missing girls of India. Enter the women's
organizations, NGOs, UN, etc. and all of a sudden the myth /tentative assumption became the
truth! Does this sound like what could have happened?
About the non-availability of hard evidence, one member asked the question: Isn't the census
data itself evidence of a gap between men and women? Is this not a social problem? Or is the
fact of gender gap itself in question?
The response came from another:
The Indian census shows that there is a gap over all in India. A significant gap also exists in the
US under-14 population; has existed for over 50 yrs and is increasing in favor of boys. Every
country in the world will show a gap - it is impossible to find a 50-50 mix. What possible
conclusions can one possibly draw from all this? If the mere existence of a gap indicates a
"social problem," then should we admit that the same social problem also exists wherever such
gaps are found, including the US?
Can one argue that in most research on sex-selective abortion in India, researchers look at gender
gap in the census figures, and attribute it to practices such as female infanticide and female
feticide? And connections are made without fully examining the evidence. One can understand
people like Khanna and few other researchers becoming a victim to the Western academic model
where everything derogatory about India (or the so-called Third World) sells. But for such a
large section of Indian population who believes (or assumes) that selective abortion does take
place - how can one explain their brainwashing? As one member reasoned, The capacity of
people for self-delusion is limitless.
Maybe its just me but I find it hard to consider the issue of gender-inequality in India (or
anywhere else) in the same way as peoples capacity for self-delusion. And maybe because I see
India and world as a woman, and because I know the problem of gender-inequality is very real
not just in India but everywhere, I find it easier to believe that some people may actually choose
to not have more girls if they consider them as more of a liability than boys. And if they are
given access to inexpensive technology to help them decide whether or not to have one more
girl, they may choose to use the technology to avoid having her6.

In our group, we also had some informative discussion examining whether sex-determination technology is
actually a problem or a solution at individual and societal level.

However, none of this in any way implies that preference for a son is in some way specific to
Indian society. Most people whether they are British, Indian, Vietnamese or American who
already have one or two daughters would probably like to have a son if given a chance. In fact,
just recently an Indian friend from Texas told me about her American neighbor who has three
daughters and is pregnant again, with hopes to have a son this time. This woman also told my
friend that she is willing to try again if she doesnt have a son this time. Whether this is a sonpreference, or simply a desire to have both sons and daughters, this must be seen as part of
human nature.
Another member of the group told us about her conversation with one of her adult students from
Mexico: He [the student] said traditionally boys were preferred in rural Mexico especially, in
order to defend the community against outsiders.
So while some researchers may have been quick in making a connection between declining
female to male ratio in India and son-preference as something specific to Indian culture, at best
what we have is a tentative hypothesis: if a gender-gap exists, could it be because of selective
abortion? Many researchers, activists, and social critics have concluded: YES, selective abortion
is the cause of gender-gap. Could it be that this is a case of more than self-delusion?
One member commented:
I dont know of any documented evidence which would prove that the gender gap in India is a
product of, or largely influenced by selective abortion of female foetuses. However, I can say
from my lived experience in India that selective abortion of female fetuses does occur and there
are both economic and cultural reasons for it (if we were to insist to distinguish between the
two). I would definitely be surprised if such data does not exist.
To this a response came:
Eschewing hard evidence sets a very dangerous precedent indeed. Bear with me while I give
you an example. Consider this one Indian state where the official census shows a clear sex ratio
in favor of girls. Now, I really have no hard evidence of selective abortions in this state but the
census does not lie, does it? So, if I really wanted to, I could very easily make the case that
1. millions of little boys go "missing" in this state each year
2. this state has a long and demonstrable history of foreign influences
3. this state is even today a hotbed of foreign NGO activity
4. this state encourages a steady influx of foreign funds
5. therefore, this state encourages selective abortion of boys to weaken the military base of the
state and ultimately the country
You can imagine the mass hysteria that would result were I to apply the full force of propaganda
techniques to this thesis.
All this insistence on producing hard evidence compelled one member to write this:

What hard evidence? I dont know about the other states, but there is enough evidence in TN,
so much so that the TN government started the 'cradle' scheme. The government hospitals and
health care centres in Dharmapuri and Salem districts sport cradles in their campuses, where
women are encouraged to anonymously drop off unwanted female infants.
About abortions of female fetuses, I am personally acquainted with two women who aborted
their third child after sex determination. They were married to an engineer and chartered
accountant respectively. They did their sex determination in Bombay and had the abortions
performed in Chennai. How the hell do you prosecute these people, unless confidantes like me
tell on them and initiate a campaign?
Your take seems to be, all abortions are bad, who cares if they are done on a selective basis or
not. My take is, yes, abortions are bad, but abortions based on sex determination are even worse.
The overall male-female ratio is always more females. If there is a lower female ratio, then it is
definitely an artificially engineered situation. Now, dont ask me for 'hard evidence'. This is a
well-known fact.
A couple of members pointed out that most people, especially those from educated,
middle/upper-middle classes that most of us tend to know, will not go on record saying that they
chose to have an abortion after finding out that it was a girl. This could be one reason for lack of
hard evidence. Some other members shared the cases they knew of where middle-class people
opted for sex-selective abortion. Of course, we agreed that there was no way to ascertain the
specific reasons for these peoples decisions, as this is such a personal issue. But then that would
be a problem in any empirical study needed to establish the real causes for such a trend.
One member shared the story of a colleague in the US who was pressured by her in-laws to have
an abortion when she found out the second child was a girl. This woman and her husband refused
and had to move out from the joint family. Another member presented this evidence:
In Bombay, you can find an abortion clinic in almost every nukkad. How would these clinics
thrive if there were no one sustaining them? My maid-servant in India did abort her girl because
she had 4 other girls and wanted a boy. If most people in our society don't see this as a crime,
who is going to report it to the authorities? How can there be any hard evidence? Most people,
educated or uneducated have multiple children (mostly girls) in the hope of a boy. I know of a
well-educated family who has 7 girls and then decided to stop because of financial constraints (I
hope that their education helped them here!).
Yet another member had this to say in terms of his evidence based on lived experience:
Our maid, in my hometown, has delivered two daughters. Ever since she delivered second
daughter, her husband and mother-in-law have stopped talking to her. They also ill-treat her at
home. He has threatened her that he would marry again. My father had to pressurize an elderly
and influential person in her locality to make sure things don't get out of hand. So it's only under
pressure, and not willingly, that her husband and MIL are OK with her, for now.

This member also made a very important point that in his observation, in villages and small
towns in India people try to settle sensitive issues among themselves or go to village elders for
resolving such family related disputes, rather than going to police or court. This could be another
reason for lack of hard evidence.
In a 1999 article published in the journal Development and Change, Sudha and Rajan point out
that the practices of female infanticide and feticide, have not been well examined in India for
reasons obviously connected with the sensitivity of the issues. The main findings not
surprisingly come from the documentation efforts of women's groups and NGOs active in these
fields rather than from academic research.
Sex ratios at birth (SRBs), refer to the ratio of male to female children born in a specific period,
such as a year, or among all the children ever born to cohorts of women. Sudha and Rajan point
out that in India, most analyses focus on juvenile sex ratios rather than sex ratios at birth. They
give following reasons:
This is firstly because of the concern that excess female child mortality, which arises from the
selective neglect of girl children compared to boys, manifests itself in childhood years rather
than around the time of birth (Das Gupta, 1987; Dyson, 1988). Secondly, data on period sex
ratios at birth are difficult to obtain in India, as the Census of India does not publish this
statistic. Such data are only occasionally published by the Sample Registration System (SRS) of
certain states, and thus nation-wide or time-trend analyses are ruled out. Vital statistics
registration is of varying quality and completeness in different parts of the country, as are
hospital records. Thus all-India or time-trend investigations of period SRBs are difficult,
although some intra-state analyses are emerging (Visaria and Irudaya Rajan, 1996, for
Kerala).
Sudha and Rajan cite several regional analyses of juvenile sex ratios in India on the whole that
have indicated that more masculine juvenile sex ratios and higher female than male child
mortality go hand in hand (Agnihotri, 1996; Clark and Shreeniwas, 1995; Das Gupta, 1987; Das
Gupta and Bhat, 1997; Kishor 1993). In other words, higher juvenile sex ratios at ages 0-4 are
accompanied by higher female than male child mortality at ages 5-9. The authors state:
A well-known regional pattern is observed: the Northern and North-western parts of India,
including the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Western UP, are areas most
unfavourable to the life chances of female children. Other parts of the country, including the
East, Central area and the South, exhibit more balanced rates.
A broad generalization has been made: the North/North-western regions of India fall within the
so-called Northern cultural and demographic zone, distinguished by higher fertility, higher
mortality, more masculine sex ratios, and lower status of women. This zone traditionally had a
wheat-based agrarian economy (where women are less involved), and social systems marked by
dowry, exogamous marriage and the seclusion of women. In contrast, the South is broadly
characterized by rice-based agrarian systems (with a greater role for women), endogamous
marriage systems, marriage payments that are more egalitarian between brides' and grooms'
families, and less seclusion of women. Women's literacy and education levels are also much

higher in the South than the North. The status of women is higher in the South, which also has
lower fertility and mortality rates, and more 'normal' sex ratios (Dyson and Moore, 1983).7
An assumption appears to have been made: since the sex ratio is more masculine, and there
are economic and social reasons for not valuing girls as much as boys, people must be practicing
female infanticide or female feticide. A lot of hard evidence on sex-selective abortion comes
from newspaper reports or other indirect data. This is so because this issue has been primarily
reported in newspapers only, there hasn't been much scholarly research on this because of the
difficulties involved in getting people to speak.
Dr. Suddhendu Biswas, of Department of Statistics, University of Delhi, recently presented a
paper titled, "On the Problem of Estimating Female Feticide Rates Based on Indirect Data" at
International Population Research Center at Ohio State University8. This presentation is more
about methodology/statistical analysis than the evidence or problem analysis.) But isnt this an
7

According to Suhda and Rajan:

Other scholars rightly stress that the simplistic dichotomization of India into 'Northern' vs. 'Southern' zones is
inadequate. The rice-cultivating Eastern region could never be fitted into either pattern. Within-region variations
have been ignored in the dichotomization, such as the 'belt of female infanticide' in the Salem/Dharmapuri/Madurai
districts of Tamil Nadu noted by Chunkath and Athreya (1997). Alternative spatial patterns ranging from five to
nineteen clusters of India's districts have been proposed, taking into account ecological and economic sub-regions,
areas with greater proportions of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe populations (who are characterized by more
gender-egalitarian cultures), and other criteria. Even in these alternative groupings, however, juvenile sex ratios
appear most masculine in the North/North-western region of India. A so-called 'Bermuda Triangle' for the female
child exists in a zone of twenty-four districts including parts of Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh, some of Rajasthan,
and the ravine areas of Madhya Pradesh (Agnihotri, 1996).
Socio-cultural trends in India also place women at an increased disadvantage. The traditional patrilineal,
patrilocal, and exogamous marriage and kinship systems prevailing over much of the subcontinent have always
placed women in a low-status, precarious position, until they earn their place in the patriline by bearing sons.
Although the southern part of the sub-continent had more endogamous and egalitarian marriage systems, with
matrilineal family forms in many Southwestern coastal communities, social change in these regions has tended to
move towards normatively patrilineal systems. Significantly, scholars also note the spread of dowry nationwide to
communities and castes where it had never been the custom. Insufficient research attention has been paid to this
phenomenon. The bulk of sociological or anthropological research in India on the topic of kinship is abstract and
descriptive in nature, viewing women as objects of study and exchange, and not problematizing the underlying
causal and consequential gender relations (Agarwal, 1994; Ramaswamy, 1993). Some scholars have begun to
address this issue (for instance, Palriwala and Risseeuw, 1996), but there is little scrutiny of the relationship
between kinship organization, gender relations, and women's life and death chances.
Some attribute the spread of dowry to the process of 'Sanskritization', whereby lower castes achieve upward caste
and class mobility by emulating the customs of the upper castes, including dowry and female seclusion. Others
attribute the changes to the young age structure of the country: the greater ratio of young marriageable girls to
potential mates in the higher age group increases the 'price' of grooms (Rao, 1993). The rise of consumerism is also
implicated, drawing people into a growing web of expectations and demands. The continued importance of kin
networks for economic resource mobilization, the spread of the dowry custom, the growing amounts of dowry
changing hands, and the increasing importance of resource acquisition strategies for family status enhancement,
have led to the concentration of wealth in families where the ratio of male children is greater, and female children
are therefore increasingly seen as liabilities (Clark, 1987; Heyer, 1992).
8

For any reader interested in reviewing Dr. Biswass presentation, please contact the author.

evidence for skeptics to see that statisticians are concerned about measurement problems of this
issue, and a systematic investigation is taking place?
Writing in the journal Feminist Issues, Manju Parikh notes:
The most disturbing evidence was presented in a study conducted by a subcommittee of the
Federation of Obstetricians' and Gynaecologists' Societies of India. Out of 8,000 cases, the study
reported that 7,999 were aborted when the test results showed a female fetus (Ravindra 1986:21;
The Statesman, 17 December 1984). Another survey was done by Professor R.P. Ravindra of the
Pharmacy College of the S.N.D.T. University of Bombay. In his research on 1000 cases in
Bombay, he could not find a single case of a male fetus being aborted, whereas 97 percent of the
fetuses identified as female were aborted (Ravindra 1986:9).
Finally, another set of comprehensive results was produced by Sanjeev Kulkarni of the
Foundation for Research in Community Health. For his report, titled Sex-Determination Tests
and Female Foeticide in Greater Bombay, he interviewed fifty gynecologists; 84 percent of them
admitted that they were performing sex-determination tests. It was estimated that about 50,000
sex-selective abortions were taking place annually in Bombay by 1987. There were 250 clinics in
Bombay alone and 600 in the whole state of Maharashtra (Health Monitor 1988).
We can either believe that this is true evidence, or we dismiss it all as propaganda based on the
ideological bent of the sources cited. If we choose the latter, then we should probably ignore
every piece of data that goes against our view of the world. A lot goes around in the world that
we dont approve of, that we dont want to believe, but that doesnt mean that it doesnt happen.
While many of us agree that the sensational style of researchers analysis and writing can be
avoided, the key questions are: does any evidence exist, and how credible that evidence is.
Doubting the credibility of the findings by Sanjeev Kulkarni of the Foundation for Research in
Community Health that are cited by Parikh, a member asked some incisive questions:
What is this Foundation? Who funds it? Why? Why does the report use the unscholarly term
"female foeticide" in its very title? And does this indicate pre-existing biases? the key
statistics has no source cited i.e. 50,000 sex-selective abortions in 1987 in Bombay. If there were
an unimpeachable source, would it not have been cited?
It would require an expert on demographic research someone who will figure out how given
the lack of reliable data on births (especially birth of girls), abortions done in private clinics,
deliveries and abortions performed by dais (midwifes not affiliated with any hospital/clinics) etc.
these researchers calculate the numbers of sex-selective abortions they report. Only then, these
reported numbers can be meaningfully challenged and a positive proof can be provided.
(Perhaps some Sulekha readers may like to take this challenge. If that happens, a key objective of
writing this column will be met.)
Sudha and Rajan provide some more evidence collected through surveys and interviews:

10

"A 1982 study in Ludhiana, an urban area in Punjab state, randomly sampled 126 individuals, of
whom approximately half each were male and female and most of whom were educated and
middle class. All the respondents had heard of the amniocentesis test; 66 per cent of them
thought it was intended for sex determination; few knew that it was actually for detecting foetal
abnormalities. While 73 per cent of the women and 59 per cent of the men believed that a girl
should be aborted if the couple already had two or more daughters, only 25 per cent of the
respondents felt that a boy should be aborted if the couple already had two or more sons. The
reasons given indicated the nature of male-dominated society, dowry problems, greater
responsibilities in bringing up daughters, and social pressure to bear sons. Over 71 per cent of
the respondents felt that amniocentesis as a sex determination test should not be banned (Singh
and Jain, 1985).
These results were uncannily echoed over a decade later, in rural Maharashtra state, among six
villages of Pune district, three with road and access to a health facility, and three others more
remote and without these amenities. Results indicated that 49 out of the 67 women interviewed
in-depth were aware of ultrasound and/or amniocentesis techniques and 45 per cent of those
who knew approved of aborting female foetuses. Only four women were aware that such tests
were actually for the detection of foetal abnormalities (Gupte et al., 1997). The spread of
awareness of these techniques to rural areas is thus clearly documented."
The skewed sex ratio in the child population is of concern to anthropologists as a physical
manifestation of patriarchal ideologies. In an anthropological study in a north Indian rural
community, Wadley found that couples chose high fertility and sex-specific mortality to achieve
a desired family composition in the larger context of social and economic change and that these
practices increasingly place female lives in danger9. Based on an ethnographic research in one
Haryana Village, Khanna suggests that the availability of new reproductive technologies
provided the Shahargaon Jat community with an alternate family building strategy to high
fertility and sex-specific child mortality10. In his study, he found that couples were maintaining a
low fertility rate by using contraceptives and achieving the ideal family composition by
exploiting reproductive technologies. He concludes: These family composition strategies limit
family size and the number of daughters in a family in the context of an urbanizing economy
dominated by an agricultural ethos and patriarchal ideology.
Perhaps all this research may be enough to convince us of following things:
1. The problem of sex-selective abortion is real.
2. The measurement problems are also real.
3. There is a tendency to use sensational language and make over-generalizations when
stating the facts. Reasons for this could be one of several:
a. To convince skeptics who don't want to believe that the problem is real.
b. Such research/language gets easily picked up for publication and wide dissemination
in the western academy.

S. S. Wadley, 1993, Family composition strategies in rural north India. Soc. Sci. Med. 37, 1367-1376.
S. K. Khanna, 1997, Traditions and Reproductive Technology in an Urbanizing North Indian Village, Soc. Sci.
Med., 44, 171-180.
10

11

c.

Because these writers are genuinely disgusted at this problem that they lose their
objectivity when presenting and/or analyzing the evidence.

Some members however consistently chose not to believe any of this evidence, called it
propaganda, and instead presented the following challenge:
You have not produced one single example of pending litigation, let alone conviction, under
existing Indian law. Have you even stopped to consider that if there was, in fact, pending
litigation or a conviction, it may do more to retard the practice than any number of surveys and
reports?
As mentioned earlier there could be several reasons why such personal and sensitive issues are
not always reported and investigated. As one member commented:
This latest standard for hard evidence is the existence of litigation, if not a conviction.
Against whom? The doctor? The in-laws? The mother of the aborted baby? You think given the
societal constraints that you are well aware of in India, that this is a realistic expectation?
Sabu M. George11 (Visiting Senior Fellow, Center for Women's Development Studies, New
Delhi, India) presents one kind of litigation evidence:
In February 2000, I filed a public interest litigation in the Indian SC along with two NGOs,
CEHAT in Mumbai and MASUM in Pune, against the Union of India and all the State
Governments for the non-implementation of the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994
(PNDT) and for inclusion of all emerging technologies that can be abused to eliminate girls
under the purview of the Act. The case is still under consideration, and it is therefore premature
to discuss its overall impact. Nevertheless, there have been significant developments. The interim
judgment was delivered on 4 May 2001, and since August 2001 hearings have taken place almost
every month. Following the Court's directives, State Governments have undertaken awareness
raising on this issue, and the media have been prominently covering the Court proceedings and
the follow-up
Already I am aware of challenges in the High Courts of Calcutta, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and
Kerala.
To ensure that all ultrasound machines are registered, in December the Court asked the
manufacturers to provide information on the customers to whom they sold machines over the last
five years. Over 11,000 names have been provided by different companies as of mid-February
2002. In January, the Court asked three professional medical associations to provide lists of all
members who use machines. Extensive media coverage of the hearings has led to other parties
joining in our case in the Supreme Court.
This article talks about a lot of other things including the role of General Electric It is
reported that the Company [GE-Wipro] has also sold machines to quacks. It seems GE has
11

This article appeared in the journal, Reproductive Health Matters, 2002, 10(19), pp. 190-192. The entire issue
was devoted to sex-selection and sex-selective abortion.

12

violated the assurance given by its then CEO Jack Welch, in 1993, that their machines would not
be used for sex determination, when they first decided to come to India.
From this research and analysis a picture begins to emerge that the problem is much more
complex than is usually reported. The reasons for more masculine sex ratios are also perhaps
much more layered than what are generally reported. But a question that has not been addressed
so far is this -- if there is no preference for boys, then why are so many private clinics that
provide sex-determination services cropping up in every part of India? Why has the cost of these
services gone down so much, if there is no demand? Somehow I doubt that it is the same reason
why some pregnant women in the US want to know the sex of their baby -- so they can paint the
right color on the baby's nursery walls.
A Word about Rhetoric
It was also pointed out that in any conversation about this topic of sex-selective abortion in India,
there seems to be a tendency to use emotionally loaded terms like unborn girls, -- the very
same choice of words pro-choice people find objectionable in the 'pro-life' camp in the U.S.
From the research I have reviewed so far, I admit that I am surprised by some of the language
used by these researchers (Indian or Western). Here is one quick example of unscholarly and
sensationalist writing "Once the tests reveal that the fetus is female, it is aborted."
This sentence appears in the very second paragraph of the paper written by Manju Parikh. If one
were not a critical reader of such a statement, one would assume that this is true for all female
fetuses in India. Pointing out the link between Eurocentrism, neo-colonial mindset, and the
egregious use of the phrase female foeticide, one member commented:
The putative unequal treatment of women is a constant staple of India bashers whether its
"dowry deaths", widow remarriage, sati, bride burning and now the latest "whine & cheese" fad
- female foeticideKilling female babies" is precisely the type of emotive terminology used by
the Moral Majority brigade. This merely obfuscates the discussion.
We can agree that the language used by many people writing about sex-selective abortion and
the interests of agencies funding such research are part of the problem. But by the same token,
anyone who brings up the standard terminology such as India-bashing, neocolonialism,
Eurocentricism, etc. to refer to any piece of evidence or analysis on this complex topic could also
be seen as avoiding the real issue. It suggests that if one is genuinely concerned about gender
inequality, which can be manifested in such abhorrent practices as sex-selective abortion (even if
it is happening rarely, it is still a problem, regardless of whether it is in India, China, or the US),
one could be easily put in this category of neo-colonialist, brown (mem)sahib, Eurocentric, etc.
Thus any meaningful debate about this issue has to take place beyond the field of usual rhetoric
wars. As one member commented:
So while I dont mind (Western or Indian) researchers turning the arc lights full beam on social
injustices in India, I draw the line at the slightest hint of the holier than thou in these

13

studies...such studies are liable to miss the whole point about what is universal in human
attitudes that makes social behavior like racism and misogyny universal. That it is universal is
not in dispute --but that does not mean it should justify our collective apathy towards it...
To discuss sensible and implementable solutions to a social crime, we must first admit to its
gravity instead of escaping into the bluster of calling it Eurocentric exaggeration or India
bashing.
Another member shared this heartwarming story to remind us that regardless of whether we have
any hard evidence, perhaps the key issue at stake is life itself. In her words:
I am reminded of an old story where a young child walked by the beach with her father where
there were thousands of star fish which had come ashore and lay deadThe child picked up one
star fish which lay gasping for breath into the sea Does it matter? Thousands die anyway,
said the father. The child replied, It mattered to that one fish Dad. I saved its life and it made
the difference. Perhaps we can't change the world, but by raising awareness we can make a
difference in at least a few.
So, do numbers really matter?
As one member reminded: Either numbers matter for all nations or they matter for none. It is a
question of fairness, balance and consistency.

Locating Indian Missing Women in Global Gender-gap


If [sex ratios] were really a long term social/ structural problem in India, then India would
have ceased to exist millennia ago - even a drop of one female per thousand males per year
means that India would be down to 0 females per 1000 males in a 1000 years i.e. no more
Indians and no more India. As we all know, Indians are doing just fine, thank you very much, at
least in sheer numbers.
This is how one member brushes aside the concern about recently observed increasing gender
gap in Indian census. He then presented the following trends12 to suggest that a quick glance at
this should put Indian statistics in a larger context:
Country
United Arab Emirates
Bahrain
Saudi Arabia
Oman
Samoa
12

Sex-ratio
(males per
100 females)
195
135
115
113
111

Country
Iran
New Caledonia
Dominican Republic
Iraq
Malaysia

Sex-ratio
(males per
100 females)
105
105
103
103
103

Source: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2000/annex-tables.pdf

14

Papua New Guinea

109

Jordan

108

Libyan
Afghanistan
Bangladesh
China
India
Pakistan
Sri Lanka
Albania
Cte dIvoire
Nepal

108
107
106
106
106
106
106
105
105
105

Occupied
Palestinian Territory
Syrian Arab
Republic
Algeria
Costa Rica
Niger
Nigeria
Panama
Paraguay
Tunisia
Turkey
Bhutan
Guatemala

103
103
103
103
102
102
102
102
102
102
102
102

It was also pointed out that in countries where the sex ratio is skewed significantly the other way
i.e. less than 95 boys to every 100 girls, should that be considered a case of male feticide? As a
member asked rather sharply: or does this not count because of wrong gender?
One member made the comment:
If animal populations even out very accurately, I would think human populations should break
even too, give or take 10 %. Although I have read someplace that in the most natural selection
humans have slightly lesser males than females, about 5% to 10% lesser. If you notice the figures
[on the UN website cited earlier], the Western, First World and European-dominated countries
follow this pattern roughly while Eastern, Mid-eastern, African countries have slightly more
males. I dont know if it is to do with race.
To this another member responded, Actually, it does. The western "races" fought two major
wars before 1950 with the US being further involved in Korea and Vietnam. The number of male
deaths in WWII alone was approximately 40 million and accounts for the sex ratio favoring
females in the West.13 He reminded us that another fact rarely mentioned in this debate is the
biological side - that the secondary sex ratio (defined as sex ratio at birth) in humans is typically
around 105 males per 100 females. This means that the Indian and Chinese numbers at 106
males per 100 females are much more normal than those of most other countries.
In animals that reproduce via sex there is an equal birth (secondary sex ratio) of one hundred
males to one hundred females (100:100) which serves to maintain the balance between males
13

Evidence from Germany over the last century showed significant increases in the male: female sex ratio during
and immediately after the two world wars. For some other explanations for the observed sex ratios at birth in the
first world, see: Piet Hein Jongbloet, Gerhard A. Zielhuis, Hans M.M. Groenewoud, and Pieternel C.M. Pasker-de
Jong, The Secular Trends in Male:Female Ratio at Birth in Postwar Industrialized Countries, Environmental Health
Perspectives Volume 109, Number 7, July 2001 Abstract available at:
http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2001/109p749-752jongbloet/abstract.html
Also see: http://www.pmac.net/rachels2.htm

15

and females in the population; in humans the secondary sex ratio is one hundred and five males
to one hundred females (105:100). It also appears that the human sex ratio is prone to
fluctuations; one well documented example is the increased number of male births recorded
during and after the first and second world wars, among the populations of those countries
directly involved in the conflict (MacMahon and Pugh, 1954). Given that the number of X and Y
bearing spermatozoa from a male are equal, and therefore should result in an equal sex ratio,
how can these effects in the human populations be explained?14
So, there are complex and poorly understood reasons for variations in sex ratio but one thing is
for sure - it has happened throughout human history in all societies at various times. Therefore to
simplistically attribute ALL of the sex ratio gap solely to female feticide is ethically and
scientifically wrong. It tells only a very small part of the story.
Given that a lot of discourse on female infanticide and feticide in India is based on the juvenile
sex ratios, we were also presented with the evidence showing that the US sex ratio for ages 14
and below shows a clear preference for boys over girls. Moreover, this trend is moving markedly
in favor of boys15:
Year:
# of
girls/1000
boys:

1950
964

1960
967

1970
962

1980
956

1990
953

2000
953

A member analyzed the above evidence as follows:


Question: How is this possible over a period of 50 yrs? Are girls being aborted more frequently
than boys?
Analysis: Does this have something to do with the sports crazy culture of the US that values boys
more than girls? After all, a boy trained in professional sports from an early age (a form of child
labour) will pay handsome dividends to the family down the line.
You see how easy it is? Sounds very plausible to me.
While our research led us to discover how much is written about gender-gap in India, it would be
instructive to do some research to find just how much has been written in scholarly literature and
mass media about sex ratios in other countries. What kind of social, cultural and economic
causes have been held responsible for these sex ratios in these countries? That would further put
things in a larger context.
One member of the group agreed that it was unfair not to apply equal concern about a gendergap wherever it exists, yet consider the socio-economic factors and cultural context, instead of
applying blanket judgments and solutions. She explained:
14

The quote is from a book review of Maternal Personality, Evolution and the Sex Ratio: Do Mothers Control the
Sex of the Infant? by Valerie J. Grant (1998, Routledge). Available at: http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/grant.html
15
Source: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0800439.html

16

It has been argued that in the Indian context, selective abortions are used as an alternative to
multiple births, the burden of dowry, and the social pressures a girl child may bring to some
families. Lets say similar burdens were shown to exist in the U.S. and that selective abortion
was being looked upon as a GOOD alternative for women facing these burdens. Would I call this
a social problem? Unequivocally, yes. Would I consider counter-education, incentives, or
perhaps restrictions on selective abortions? Yes, but I would probably find myself against the
latter for other reasons.
To her, the problem with sex selection is not the gender gap it causes, but the social inequity it
reflects:
Suppose the reason for the gender gap was that there was something accidentally in the water
which caused women to deliver more boys than girls, no selection involved. Would I then say this
gap poses a social problem? I don't know what social repercussions are inherent in a gender
gap, but there must be some. Since I don't know what they are, I cant say whether they are good
or bad. What I do think is a gender gap could be a part of the perpetuation of a social problem.
No matter where, I do think it is a social problem when women are faced with pressure to abort
based upon something as innocuous as the gender of a child due to extraneous social factors.
All of this raises important questions about the credibility of mainstream discourse on sexselective abortion in India. But as one member pointed out:
[W]e arent talking comparative demography with a nationalistic emphasis here, are we? This
is really shying away from the real issues, which IMO, are:
1. Does female foeticide occur in India?
2. If yes, what are the possible causes (socio-economic, cultural, universal etc) and avenues for
intervention? What would be the best form of intervention?
3. If not, why is the perception that they do, so prevalent both in India and in the West?
It has often been pointed out that one of the key motivations for sex-selective abortions in India
is the institution of dowry, which makes girls more of an economic burden than the boys.
Economically a female child is considered a drain on the family purse (Ramanamma and
Bambawale, 1980, as cited in Grant, 199816). Looking at the UAE sex ratio of 195 males to 100
females, one member questioned that statistic giving the reason that in a society that practices
mehr, perhaps girls are more valued. But another member quickly pointed out:
We may all be so conditioned to believe that dowry = female abortions that automatically
assumed that the mehr system would have the opposite impact i.e. girls would be more valued. It
was therefore a shock for her to see that the very societies where mehr is practiced also have the
most atrocious sex ratios against femalesWhat do we conclude: Either there is no link with
mehr but only with dowry? Or that the link with dowry is incorrect?
16

Maternal Personality, Evolution and the Sex Ratio: Do Mothers Control the Sex of the Infant? by Valerie J. Grant
(1998, Routledge).

17

The situation is perhaps much more complicated than simply saying that girls are valued because
of mehr. One has to really be familiar with UAE societys attitudes towards girls and the role of
mehr system before making any relevant analysis. But the above exchange does raise a good
point about the link between dowry and sex ratio in India. But in a discussion about
understanding the reasons behind sex ratios in India, do we really need to investigate the causes
behind UAE sex ratios?
One member asked this question:
By citing societies/cultures where women get money in marriage (instead of having to give it)
and where the sex ratio is lower than ours and then making the argument that therefore dowry
has nothing to do with the sex-ratio is comparing apples and oranges. I dont see how that
logical leap is being made.
Another member responded:
When seeking explanations of human behavior, it is quite logical to compare human
motivations across societies and cultures. The practice of exchanging financial or other assets at
the time of marriage is a universal, time-honored phenomenon. Just the outward expression of it
will differ across time, place and cultures. Both dowry and mehr are outward, context specific
expressions of a universal phenomenon. It would be negligent, and downright poor scholarship,
not to include both in the overall picture.
All the above discussion still leaves out several un-addressed questions. How do we explain the
availability of sex-determination services in almost all of India including small villages? If we
haven't been able to prove that sex-selective abortions are really taking place, we have also not
been able to prove that sex-selective abortions are NOT taking place. Biological explanations
though add a layer to the debate, but do not necessarily prove that biology is the only reason
behind observed sex ratios in India. Are we ready to admit that there is actually no preference for
boys in India?
The question is not whether the preference for boys is wrong, but if it is okay to go to such extent
to abort a fetus after finding out that it is a girl. First of all, these abortions take place later in the
pregnancy, so there is always a risk to the woman. Secondly, the only reason these fetuses get
aborted is because they would have been girls. Is it wrong? I don't know, but I sure know that if
these fetuses were boys, they wouldnt be aborted.

Abortion: Sex-Selective or Otherwise


Another way to understand the issue of sex-selective abortion is to situate it within the larger
debate on abortion. One member provided some important insights:
Does identifying with pro-life mean that no abortion is an acceptable? Personally, I cannot
relate to the opposition of pro-life and pro-choice, since I am both; I feel all life is sacred

18

including the mothers. Nor am I confident it is better for children to be born to parents who are
not set to love and care for them. Yes, I also feel this way about aborting females, but more
importantly I wonder why we should be resigned to that situation. The standards to which I
would hold myself are not necessarily the best ones for everyone's lives. I would rather concern
myself with giving women better options to abortion than denying them the choice.
The legality of abortion at the various stages of pregnancy obviously varies according to
predominant beliefs from country to country. Should the limit also vary according to the
motivations? I tend to agree that it makes sense to apply the same standard to all types of
abortion; it becomes too arbitrary to legalize abortion for some reasons but not for others.
While many of us agreed that abortion is a very personal issue, and none of us can ever judge
others' choices and decisions, but why should it be okay for anyone to abort a fetus just because
it is a female? A member asked the question if women are aborting females JUST because they
are female. She explained:
Aren't they really aborting them because they will be a burden or because they want an heir or
because they want their in-laws approval? The fact that the baby is female is the reason for the
burden or the disapproval, but is not in isolation of the reason for the abortion. Is it valid to have
an abortion because of burden or approval? Is it valid to have an abortion in order to keep the
approval of your superiors at work and not lose the competitive advantage in your career? Some
women have abortions for the sake of their careers, why not for the sake of their in-laws? If it is
valid to not want a child at all (either a girl or a boy), then why is it unacceptable not to want a
girl in particular? Is it valid to not want a child because of the expense? Some women have
abortions because they want to save their money for retirement rather than another college fund,
why not because they do not want to save for dowry? Can we say if your motivation is to not
spend money on another child that is okay, but if it is because of dowry it is not okay? Is that not
discriminatory to the poor? In the absence of other alternatives, is it wrong to want to avoid this
situation? I just do not see how we can say your choice to abort is only valid if your motivations
are such and such. Moreover, I don't think we can talk about selective abortion being
discriminatory if we mean discriminating against the child. If the child's interests and equal
rights are of foremost concern, then abortion is just wrong altogether.
But isnt sex-selective abortion discriminatory towards women by putting a burden on them
without considering other remedies? Why do some people demonstrate such a strong resistance
to considering the burden upon these women, their lack of real choice, and the possibility of
alternatives? Should we really not care because it is such a personal issue? Should we just stop
caring about the issue because this issue is so complex, because some bad writing has been done
in covering this issue, because we are afraid of neo-colonialist agenda? Why? Because we value
personal freedom? A member responded:
I am wondering if the real reason for not caring about the gender gap and selective abortion
and the burden upon women is that some people are essentially opposed to abortion, so really
don't take the consequences seriously. I wonder if there are people who are just more interested
in seeing an end to abortion rather than an increase in reform or other alternatives. It may be I

19

am missing something else, but I can make no other sense of the resistance to caring about this
issue.
Contextualizing sex-selective abortion in the larger debate on abortion raises some good points
for consideration. But just to make my position clear, I think the problem starts with the
terminology itself: pro-life vs. pro-choice. Pro-choice people are also pro-life; they just want a
choice. People who want to keep abortion legal are not pro-death.
I also believe that all life is sacred, but at the same time I don't have a moment's hesitation in
saying that abortion should be a legal choice for anyone wishing to make that choice. There are
also other valid reasons to keep abortion legal - like rape, incest, etc. My problem begins when
someone is being forced (socially, economically) to abort. I would find it problematic when
someone I know decides to abort because it would be a problem for her career, or because she
wants to live a life without any responsibility - but I would want that person to have legal
freedom to make that choice.
So ultimately these are all personal, emotional decisions. The pain gets enhanced when someone
is forced by any reason to make this choice. I also believe that anyone who chooses abortion
even as a birth-control measure or as a means to keep her independence or looks will eventually
have to come to terms with the emotional pain that is caused by these decisions. But I would still
want them to have that choice. After that, it is between them and their conscience. The question I
would have regarding sex-selective abortion is this -- do these women or their families who
choose to abort a fetus because it is female ever feel the same guilt or remorse as they would if
they had chosen abortion without knowing the sex of the fetus?
Another member summarized some of this ongoing discussion by asking these questions:
Indeed, for those that shout about female feticide, the questions are:
1. If it is wrong to abort a female fetus then should it not be wrong to abort a male fetus? Any
fetus? Isn't abortion itself wrong? Just to illustrate this point, in one of the first reports cited
earlier here, the NGO operating in Mumbai had the following policy we must expose female
abortions in India but we must be careful. We must never lose sight of our ultimate goal - that of
promoting abortions as a means of population control in India. This is a shocking statement
made openly in the report.
2. If it is wrong to abort a female fetus because of social & family pressures in India, then it
should be just as wrong to abort *any fetus* for social pressures in the West i.e. career, maintain
looks, retirement funds, lack of family support, pressures of single parenthood, forgot to take
pill, pregnancy failed to snare husband, date rape etc.
Yes, any abortion is wrong, but that is something between the person who opts for abortion and
her sense of morality. I don't think the issue of sex-selective abortion that is based on the reason
of gender-discrimination alone automatically leads us to say that abortion shouldnt be a choice
for women. What are we talking about here -- if we don't want people to keep on aborting female
fetuses, women shouldn't even have the choice of abortion? Sounds like double discrimination.

20

Also, the issue of abortion has not been of much dispute in India since its legalization in 1971,
because it has been considered a part of the governments family planning and population control
programs.
It was pointed out that perhaps some of the discussion was getting muddier because people were
perhaps mixing up two distinct paradigms. This member explained:
1. The woman's right to choose i.e. the pro-abortion position
2. The rights of the fetus or the baby i.e. the right not to be discriminated against based on
gender. This is the anti-abortion position.
If you choose (1) and the woman has the final say on abortion, then why should we condemn
Indian women in particular for their decision to abort? Didn't we agree that the woman has the
final say? Of course, the claim is made that Indian women are coerced by society and family.
Then the question becomes whether this coercion is any better or worse than that faced by a
western woman who has to choose abortion for lack of family and social support/ single
parenthood etc. In both cases, society forces women to make context specific choices. As
asked, why is one worse than another?
If you choose (2) and the fetus has rights then does this not invalidate (1) in some very
important respects? Where do (1) and (2) intersect? Who defines this intersection? How can we
extend life to some fetuses and not to others? Another reason why the Mumbai NGO whose
stated objectives include both (1) and (2) seems to me to be speaking out of both sides of their
mouths.
This is why I said that it is only for the reason of pure discrimination i.e. if pure,
unadulterated discrimination (for no other reason - not social, not cultural, not economic) can
be proven then the perpetrator should be punished. This should be the acceptable baseline in
every society.
The above analysis is relevant only when we situate the sex-selective abortion debate in the
larger debate on abortion. But why do we need to do that?
Abortion is legal in India. So anti-choice issue doesnt even arise. Women in India do have a
choice. Reasons why a woman/couple chooses abortion could be any one or several. Most
reasonable people will agree that a woman should have the final say in decision regarding
abortion. (In our group, we spent enough time discussing the ideas of freedom versus making a
decision in isolation; personal pain and turmoil the woman/couple goes through etc.)
With regard to sex-selective abortion discrimination takes place when the only reason for
abortion is that the fetus is female. Of course it will be difficult to prove that the fetus was
aborted only because of its gender, or because of other reasons, such as controlling family size.
But then if the abortion were to take place for reasons other than gender of the fetus, why would
a woman/couple go through a sex-determination test? Why would the abortion not take place as
soon as pregnancy has been determined? Why wait?

21

It has been contended that female fetuses are often aborted because of societal pressure. But it is
obviously possible that a woman may decide to abort her female fetus completely without any
pressure, in that case also it is just plain discrimination. (However, I would want to know if that
woman would have also aborted her male fetus).
Let us now look at the argument that if abortion is okay for reasons such as career,
independence, single parenthood etc., why isnt it okay if abortion is done for the reason that the
woman feels pressure from society.
a) When a woman chooses abortion because of reasons other than the sex of the fetus, there is no
need for sex-determination. So abortion can take place without putting mothers health in danger.
b) When a woman chooses (or is forced to choose) abortion because of one reason only, viz., sex
of the fetus, there is not only gender discrimination but also risk to mother's health as the
abortion is taking place late in the pregnancy.
c) In a) there is no discrimination against the fetus, but in b) the discrimination is clear.
d) In a), the woman making the choice probably feels remorse. But in b) does the woman/family
feel the same remorse? Answer to this question will tell us about the societal attitude.
e) In a) the woman's decision (to abort or not to abort) will be same regardless of the sex of the
fetus. But in b) the decision will be different if the fetus is male.
By confusing sex-selective abortion with abortion, one is merely trying to say something like this
we don't want woman to have the right to choose, but if they must have the right, then they
should also not complain if we keep on asking them to choose female fetuses.
One member challenged this position when he said:
We agree that women have the right to choose where ever they happen to live, USA or India.
Just as we accept and respect abortion decisions made by US women, so we must respect
abortion decisions made by Indian women. Why would you want to go any deeper than this and
analyze Indian decisions but not those of Western women? Why not have a level playing field?
Should not both decisions be analyzed? Or none?
Of course we must respect abortion decisions made by all women - Indian or American. But it is
not a matter of simply analyzing decisions without taking into account the reasons for abortion.
Let us look at two hypothetical situations.
1. An American woman who decides to abort because she knows her boyfriend will be a
deadbeat father will do so regardless of the gender of the fetus. A decision made by an Indian
woman in the same circumstance should be analyzed in the same way.

22

2. But if an Indian married woman with 2 kids decides to keep the male fetus despite the fact that
she has a 9-5 job and her husband is hardly any help at home; but next year decides to abort the
female fetus is hardly at the same playing field than her counterpart in the US who decides to
abort both times soon after finding she is pregnant.
Is there a difference between the above two situations? A member raised this question:
How can I see the difference when youve stacked the deck against the Indian female? Why did
the American woman abort? Was it for reasons of career? If so, I see no difference at all. The
Indian is prejudiced against female kids while the American is prejudiced against ALL kids period. Do you see the similarities?
But lets assume that both the women are in exactly the same situation. The point that American
woman is prejudiced against ALL kids makes sense. Reason could be any, including career.
Personally, I would find it wrong, very wrong. But it is not about my personal morality or a
readers personal morality, is it? It is about the woman in question. And I would let her come to
terms with her decision.
However, it is important to ask whether or not people see that the Indian woman in this
hypothetical case is prejudiced only against female kids because of something other than career,
perhaps a belief that having another daughter will be lot more trouble than having a son. Why did
she not abort the male fetus? Why did she wait to find the sex of the fetus before deciding to
abort? If career was her reason to abort, why did she not abort the male fetus as well?
None of us have a right to pass any judgment on the womans decision. In raising a question
about Indian woman's decision to abort only a female fetus, I am not making a judgment on her
decision, but on the mindset that forces this woman to abort a female fetus but not a male fetus.
Likewise, I am also making a judgment on the mindset that forces the American woman to abort
a fetus because she is afraid that her high-powered corporate bosses would find her less
productive/efficient because she is now a mother. So now the question becomes - will this
career-conscious American woman keep the male fetus because her bosses would approve of
that? And only abort female fetus? If that is the case, then that is just another example of sexselective abortion. No matter where it happens India, USA, UK, or Timbaktoo, it should be
seen as discrimination.
But the debate doesnt end here. As a member of our group pointed out:
Even if I take this example of ....
1. An Indian woman aborting females only for career reasons
2. An American woman aborting both males & females for career reasons
...things really dont get any clearer. Why? Because after 4 years and assuming a 50/50 mix
1. The Indian woman aborts 2 females and saves 2 children
2. The American woman aborts everything and saves not a single child

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Which is better? Some people obviously believe that (2) is better? Why?
However, it is important to pay attention to two things in these examples:
1. The Indian woman is not aborting the male fetus because of career. She is only aborting the
female fetus - why?
2. The American woman is aborting both fetuses because of career BUT WITHOUT FINDING
OUT THE SEX OF THE FETUS.
Again, all the fetuses the American woman is aborting are probably aborted in the first few days
of the pregnancy. This implies prejudice against all fetuses or societal pressures to not have any
kids. All the fetuses that Indian woman is aborting are aborted ONLY AFTER it has been proven
that the fetus is FEMALE. This implies prejudice against female fetuses or societal pressures to
not have more girls, though more boys may be welcome.
I dont find one situation better than the other. But I do find that the first kind of pressure is
easier to fight than the second one. Why? Because in the first case, for the woman to stop the
cycle of abortion all she has to do is say -- goodbye career. In the second case, a woman has to
say Oh no, I could have kept this child if only it were a boy.
It must be pointed out that despite such intense debate, we didnt hear a single word from anyone
in defense of sex-selective abortion. Why is that? The debate started with sex selective
abortion is wrong, it then went to is sex selective abortion really happening? to if some
people want to maintain that sex-selective abortion is wrong, then they must admit that all
abortion is wrong. I was getting curious where it would go next. Would it be on the lines of
let's make contraception full responsibility of women only, so we don't even have to have a
debate about abortion. By the looks of where this discussion was going, I could somehow see
that happening!
One member brought the issue home with these words:
To me this is more than just a discussion about the moral propriety of aborting ANY fetus, male
or female. To me sex selective abortion is just one manifestation of the larger negative bias
against women in Indian society, and one would have to be in deep denial to pretend that it
didnt exist...
I know of instances within my own family where the son is singled out for special treatment
particularly if he has arrived after a series of daughters and the daughters, while given love, are
definitely in comparison taken more for granted. No need for the men to go into the defensive
about this topic either -- because, as far as I am concerned, the WORST perpetrators of this bias
are the women themselves. Again, I speak from personal experience from living out my formative
years in India with an experience that spans a small town, two major cities in the North and
South, and rural southern India. Studies may be invalidated, but not my personal experience. I
did not hallucinate through 28 years of my life...

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To debate this purely with a view to passing our individual and subjective moral judgement is
limiting. This is simply one of the symptoms of a deeper cause. How does one address the cause
and something as deeply ingrained and subtle as a mindset?

Concluding Thoughts
One of the many books that I started reading but never finished is titled, May you be the mother
of a hundred sons: A journey among the women of India, written by Elisabeth Bumiller.
Bumiller, a reporter for The Washington Post, spent four years in India, and her observations in
this book offer insights into the condition of rural Indian women as well as Bombay actresses
and powerful political figures. On page 124, she writes:
Although the Bombay women had all of the benefits of modernity, their values remained as
backward as those of the villagers. Some of them were from families with enough status in the
community to set an example by reusing to pay any dowry at all, but this option did not occur to
them. It was especially depressing to me that educated women apparently valued themselves so
little as women that they were willing to prevent a female child, just because she was female,
from coming into the world. To those women who argued that this was their choice, I would
counter that choice is not made in a social vacuum, and that their choice had in fact been
determined for them by thousands of years of prejudice and discrimination. Ultimately, the sex
test was proof that education and material progress alone cannot alter traditional attitudes. I
learned that there has to be a place for political action as in the case of the feminist movement
to ban the sex test in Bombay that raises peoples consciousness as it tries to change the
system from outside.
It is perhaps very easy to attribute such a quote to the Eurocentric, West-centric, Orientalist or
neo-colonizing mindset of some Western feminists, whose only goal is to highlight the
oppressive conditions of women in India, so that they can then make the Western, liberated
woman look good in comparison. It can also be argued that by pinpointing the prejudicial and
discriminatory practices in Indian traditions, they are actually making a case for their brand of
Western liberal feminism as an escape for these oppressed Indian women. Challenging such
anthropological studies, Narayan17 presents a very interesting comparison when she talks about
a hypothetical Indian researcher studying American women. She titles this hypothetical book,
May you be the loser of hundred pounds: A journey among women of the United States.
But how do we explain the references to son-preference in Indian folk songs? In a recent article18
in Manushi, Krishna gives examples of Bihari folk songs that demonstrate son preference:
Jo hum janati dhia kokhai janamiha
Peeyati mirchi jahar ho Mirchi ke jhaare jhooredhia mari jayiti
Chhoot jayite garhua santaap ho
17

Uma Narayan, 1997, Dislocating cultures: Identities, traditions and third world feminism, Routledge.
Sangeeta Krishna, 2002, Death Wish for Daughters: Son Preference and Daughter Aversion in Bihari Folk Songs,
Manushi, v. 131.
18

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(Had I known that the foetus was that of a girl, I would have had a drink of hot chillis and killed
not only the foetus but also this life long curse).
Chandra grahanwa beti sanjahi laagela
Suraj grahanwa bhinusaar ho,
Dhia grahanwa beti janam se laagela
Jaane kab ugrin hoyee ho
(The lunar eclipse occurs at night, the solar in the day. Eclipse brought about by the birth of a
daughter lasts forever).
Bahurani ke ho gayee bitiya
Khatiya bahire karo
Sasur sunale ki bitiya bhaili
Sir se utaar de lein pagadiya
Khatiya bahiro karo
(The daughter-in-law has produced a daughter. Throw her cot out of the house. The father-in-law
should be informed that a girl has been born in the family so that he can remove his turban.)
Can we honestly say that songs like these have no effect on our individual and collective psyche?
Can we honestly say that there is no son preference? As Indians living in the diaspora should we
become so sensitive to how we, our culture, society, and homeland are portrayed in the Western
media and academy, that we stop questioning some of the worst practices prevailing in India?
The purpose of this essay was not to engage in yet another arm-chair activism by Indians
living in the diaspora on the sensitive topic of sex-selective abortion in India. The objective was
to demonstrate that the issue may be a lot more complex than it appears at first, and to present a
synthesis of several aspects that may not have been thoroughly discussed in the existing literature
on this topic. Hopefully, in doing this, we have been able to address some important questions
and ask some more that will be addressed by the readers.

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