In a macabre parody of the Ford Motor Company’s famous advertising jingle, “Have you Driven a Ford Lately,” billboards carrying the slogan “Have You Killed a Daughter Lately,” sponsored by a women’s group, appeared all over Mumbai a few years back. At that time, out of 8,000 abortions following amniocentesis in the city 7,999 fetuses were discovered to be female.
Since then the use of high-tech methods, such as amniocentesis and ultrasound, for the selective production of male offspring in India have created an international uproar. Early figures from the 2001 census indicate that the ratio of female to male births in the country has declined to as low as 93 girls for every 100 boys. In contrast, 106 girls are born for every 100 boys worldwide.
Millions of girl children, it is alleged, have perished in India over the last decade.
These statistics do not seem surprising to someone like me, who grew up in India. A father has to pay no dowry if only sons are born; instead he can receive a hefty payment from the parents of each daughter-in-law. And family property can safely pass into the hands of male heirs if only boys are conceived.
Hindu scriptures and mythology too portray the bearing of male offspring as the ultimate fulfillment for a woman. Even today, when a young girl greets elders by touching their feet she is offered the blessing, “Satyaputra Bhava,” or “May you be the mother of seven sons.”
Now, medical technologies such as amniocentesis and ultrasound have made it easy for a woman to realize the ideal depicted in the scriptures. A law against the use of medical procedures to determine the sex of a fetus has been on the books in India for nearly half a decade, but has had no effect on the continued use of the practice.
Westerners seem horrified by these reports. “We would never prefer conceiving a girl over a boy,” they say with righteous indignation. How dare Hindus tamper with nature, they exclaim in outrage.
But the truth is that people in the West, too, routinely choose the kind of child they want to conceive. “Genius” sperm banks are just one of the many ways in which Americans interfere with nature to produce children with “desirable” traits, albeit, “desirable” by their own cultural norms.
Is it ethical to take life when a fetus is flawed, many Indians ask? Is it moral to use amniocentesis to “weed” out defective babies with medical conditions such as heart disease and Downs Syndrome, as it is commonly used in the U.S.? Is it appropriate to use eggs and sperm from anonymous donors to spawn babies without genealogies? Is it beneficial for the human population to be rid of its natural diversity, through the production of perfect children in highly lucrative “baby factories” that have sprung up all over the U.S. in the guise of infertility clinics, they ponder.
New reproductive techniques have pushed the envelope even further in the West. Scientists have recently developed a new procedure, for example, to combine material from the eggs of two women to produce a healthy fetus with dubious parentage. The prospect of cloning has also created a new dilemma.
And now there is a controversial theory, promoted by the pro-choice lobby, which uses demographic data to prove that recent reduction in crime rates in the U.S. is the result of continued legality of Roe v. Wade, which has allegedly rid the country of individuals most at risk for becoming criminals.
But the pro-choice lobby is trading on thin ground here. For, demographics can be used to bolster both sides of the argument. Census figures in India could be used by pro-lifers, for example, to promote a worldwide ban on abortion. Such a backlash against abortion could further deteriorate the status of women in India, through the loss of right to choose, even when the health of the mother is seriously jeopardized.
I am afraid we have come to a crossroads with regard to ethical questions surrounding the misuse of high tech reproductive techniques worldwide. We must address these issues now if we are to maintain a proper gender ratio, health, and diversity of the human race for millennia to come. As in case of other issues such as nuclear testing, global warming, and energy policy, the West’s morally superior attitude will have no effect on the so-called “third world” countries, unless the West’s self-righteousness is accompanied by self-examination.
As long as the use of high tech reproductive techniques such as amniocentesis and in-vitro fertilization continues in the West without regard to ethics, the population of girls and women in India will continue to decline.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.