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A recent study published in the British medical journal Lancet claims that about half-a-million girl babies are aborted in India every year. In this study Canadian and Indian researchers, who collaborated on a national survey of 1.1 million households with 133,738 recorded births, concluded that between 590,000 and 740,000 girls were aborted in India in 1997, creating a severe imbalance between female and male populations. As a result of this trend, in 1991, the female-male ratio fell to 945 women for every 1,000 men in the Indian population. The ratio dropped even further, to 927 females per 1,000 males in 2001.
Without any outside intervention, the number of female births always exceeds the number of male births worldwide.
The new figures are particularly troubling in the light of the fact that a law was passed in 1994 in India banning the use of ultrasound or amniocentesis for detecting the sex of a baby. In a 2000 decision, the Indian Supreme Court reaffirmed the rule and made state governments responsible for its implementation.
The Lancet study addresses only one facet of the problem. During a visit to India in 2001, I interviewed government officials, social workers, and women’s groups, who informed me about a loophole in the law. Perfectly legal high-tech methods were replacing the use of amniocentesis and subsequent abortions for selecting a baby’s sex, experts warned me, particularly among the middle and upper classes.
In the new millennium, Indian medicine has been on the cutting edge to determine the sex of a baby. Dr. Malpani in Mumbai became an early leader, perfecting a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), consisting of in-vitro fertilization followed by a biopsy on the fetus to determine its sex. During an interview, Malpani admitted that in most cases, he implanted only male embryos, as requested by his clients.
In the last five years, a wide variety of gender selection techniques have gained popularity among the growing middle class in India. Advertisements in newspapers and magazines are common, as are signs for fertility clinics.
There is every reason to believe therefore that the Lancet study underestimates the total loss of female babies in India each year.
In the last five years, PGD and other baby sex-selection techniques have also gone mainstream in America. Choosing the sex of a baby has been euphemistically labeled “family balancing,” and blessed by the Christian right and medical ethicists.
Since the United States does not ban such procedures, kits and treatments for pre-selecting the baby’s sex have been widely advertised in American newspapers and magazines. So much so that in March 2005, 60 Minutes aired a glowing report, interviewing a mother, who, after three sons, wanted a daughter. The program made no reference to the international dimensions of the story, nor did it dwell on the fact that in many countries, such techniques are banned.
And 60 Minutes omitted to mention a crucial aspect, that a disproportionate number of advertisements for the technology appear in publications catering to Indian immigrants. Not coincidentally, a large proportion of practitioners of such technology in the United States also happen to be doctors of Indian origin.
Sociologists in India and elsewhere have offered the usual explanations for the loss of 5 million or more female children over the last 10 years in India through selective abortions alone. Dowries and the resulting preference for male children are the culprits.
The Lancet study also observed that in families where the first child was a girl, the ratio of girls to boys among second children was 759 girls per 1,000 boys—a reflection of the efforts made by families to ensure that at least one of their children was male.
And herein lies the crux of the problem, in India as well as in the Indian immigrant population in America. Indian Americans may not choose the sex of their first baby, but chances are that if they already have a girl they will undergo some effort to conceive a boy the next time.
What does all this say about the future of female Homo sapiens? Selective gender selection might become quite the rage in coming decades, as medical procedures become available to increasing proportions of Indians and Chinese, creating a major gender imbalance on the planet.
While politicians and feminists in the United States engage in the same old debate on “choice,” as demonstrated in the recent Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito, there continues a raging controversy among Indian feminists on abortion rights, which they do not view as a symbol of women’s liberation but as a vehicle for subjugation of women. And while American media publishes heartwarming stories about women blessed by a child of a chosen gender through high-tech means such as PGD, Indian feminists lobby their government for a complete ban on such procedures.
In this age of globalization, America cannot afford to practice moral parochialism. It is time the United States engaged in a dialogue with the international community—perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations—about the ethics of gender selection via abortion as well as via high-tech means. It is time to establish international guidelines on both or risk the gender balance of humans being altered forever.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.