Selective abortion: Less choice won’t create more opportunity

To end sex-selective abortion in India, we must address societal inequalities that make girls less desirable to prospective parents, says Deepshikha Chhetri.

One of the Indian government’s most popular gender-focused programs is “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter). A campaign to ensure the right to survival of girl children by fighting against incidents of female infanticide and feticide in India. The preference of having a son is rooted in our patriarchal system. And has lead to women having sex-selective abortions. 

We want the girl child to be born, the girl child to get access to their rights, the girl child to be considered equal. It is the right of women. It’s every individual’s human right. And this is key to social justice. This positive impulse significantly contributed to the passing of laws that prohibit sex-selective abortion in India; the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 (MTP) and Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 (PC-PNDT). However, the focus and implementation of this program are fundamentally flawed.  

The government and policymakers measure the success of the program, and their advancement of gender equality by focusing on macro-level numbers. Worldwide, it is suggested that the natural sex ratio should be between 950 and 980 while India still stands at 930 females per 1000 males. The situation is getting worse. In the last decade, more states have a stagnant or declining sex ratio than a positive one. 

The author celebrating International Women’s Day.

But it is important to gauge success from the perspective of individual rights, not simply sex ratios (the number of men to women). The states and districts with the highest female education rates, and other crucial social indicators like female literacy and work participation rates, do not correlate with the best sex ratios. This was demonstrated in the findings of the National Family Health Survey – 4 (NFHS-4). 

The prohibition of sex-selective pregnancy has stigmatized women so far that we are depriving them of their human rights, like the right to safe abortion, and criminalising their choices. Women must now prove the reason their pregnancy is unwanted is acceptable within the regulations. This is placing the burden of achieving gender equality solely onto individuals, and often on to vulnerable, resource-poor women. 

Women from tribal village of Kotra, Rajasthan.

It is quite a double-standard that we allow selective abortion when it comes to disability, considering the burden to the parents, while it may also be valid for the prospective parents of a female child. The child’s sex makes her an economic liability due to the existing societal norms. So is prohibiting sex-determination really protecting and empowering women in our country? Even societies with good sex-ratio have high exploitation of women. 

The current approach of protecting girl fetuses by interfering with the reproductive freedom of women is unlikely to improve our skewed sex-ratio. If we really want to ensure that women and couples do not choose to terminate pregnancies based on gender, the foremost things we need to address are the reasons why the girl child is so unwanted. We must initiate meaningful interventions that eliminate all forms of gender discrimination. These are the inequalities that are leading individuals to favor male children in the first place. And these include women’s lack of control over their reproductive health.  

The author addressing government school teachers of Panipat, Haryana.

People don’t care about the ratios and figures, what really influences their choices are concrete realities. Economic situations which determine whether the girl child is a financial liability or not. Ultimately this question is about whether she has equal opportunity to succeed at every stage of her life as her male counterpart. 

We are failing to make the link between sex determination as a sign of gender discrimination and the abysmal status of women in our society. Long term strategies must address these gender inequalities and economic disparities and prioritize their focus on women’s individual, sexual and reproductive rights. 

In a society full of patriarchy, power, and politics, International Women’s Day is an important moment to create awareness about women’s rights to promote equal opportunities in all spheres of life, from cradle to grave.

Deepshikha Chhetri

Deepshikha Chhetri

I am a Public Health Nutritionist from New Delhi and have been working in this field for more than 4 years now. Previously I have worked as an India Fellow in tribal areas of Rajasthan and post that I was working with the Government of Haryana as Chief Minister's Good Governance Associate. Currently, I am engaged with Restless Development India as a Youth Accountability Advocate to undertake evidence-based advocacy and supporting the government in effective implementation of policies for Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls) and Family Planning 2020.

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Selective abortion: Less choice won’t create more opportunity

by Deepshikha Chhetri Reading time: 3 min