Thursday, January 12, 2006

Female feticide

How would those who champion women’s rights to choose (what they want to do with their bodies and the babies in their wombs) handle this mutilation of future women? If there is an issue that makes the pro-choice advocacy in the women’s rights movement stand on its head this is it.

I am not twitting, I am saying that this issue is important for the pro-choice advocates to address.

In the Reuters news two days ago, and which the Inquirer carried, was the recent published research on fertility figures that showed that about 10 million female fetuses may have been deliberately aborted in India over the past 20 years.

This practice was not discovered just yesterday. It has been going on for some time since the technology for sex determination (amniocentesis, ultrasound, etc.) became available. But when a science research team gets down to the bottom of it, comes up with numbers and publishes the findings in the prestigious The Lancet medical journal, the world takes notice.

This massive selective abortion of female fetuses, the report said, must be the most plausible explanation for the skewed male to female ratio. Dr. Prabhat Jha, of the University of Toronto, who headed the research, said that prenatal sex determination and selective abortion account for half a million missing girls yearly. Multiply that by 20 years and you have 10 million missing girls. The Indian Medical Association has a more shocking estimate—five million female fetuses are killed in India each year.

A lot has been written about this criminal practice of killing female fetuses in India where sons are deemed more precious than daughters, where tradition that has perpetuated this preference dies hard.

There is a big uproar over this among Indians themselves. Sure, the women’s movement is alive and well in India, NGOs working for the welfare of women thrive there and yet they could only do so much in preventing the killing of female fetuses.

As I said, this issue surely makes the pro-choice in the women’s rights movement stand on its head. One cannot defend the rights of female fetuses and not defend the rights of any fetus. One cannot raise an outcry over the killing of these supposedly unwanted female fetuses and not raise an outcry over the killing of fetuses in general, they be female or male.

What makes for a less-preferred or an unwanted fetus? It’s being female (as in the case of India or China)? The fetus’ mother’s preference as dictated by culture? The circumstances and context of its conception? (Rape, poverty, too many children already.)

I bring up this scenario because, in India where abortion is legal, abortion becomes illegal if it is sex-determined, meaning that abortion is based on the fetus’ sex. But it is legal if the reason is not the baby’s sex but some other.

India’s Pre-natal Diagnostic Technique Act of 1994 criminalizes sex determination tests with the motive of female feticide. Doctors in India are prohibited from disclosing to their patients who undergo ultrasound procedure (for whatever reason) what their babies’ sex is. But everybody knows that speech or the written word is not the only means of communicating.

The Indian government even launched a series of ads against rampant killing of unborn girls. This practice is rooted in the cultural preference for sons and the exorbitant dowry demands on the families of brides.

In India there is this saying ``Raising a girl is like watering the neighbor’s garden,’’ Jeremy Copeland of CBC News wrote. ``In a country where sons have far more status than daughters, Susheela did what many Indian women are too afraid to do: she gave birth to a baby girl. Twelve weeks into her pregnancy she went for an ultrasound test and the doctor accepted a bribe to reveal the sex of her fetus. When he announced Susheela was carrying a girl, her husband and mother-in-law tried to force her to have an abortion.

```They didn’t let me eat food. There were times when I went hungry for as many as to to three days,’ Susheela says. `They used to beat me. On two or three occasions my husband kicked me very hard in the stomach.’

``There are also religious reasons parents want a son. More than 800 million Indians are Hindu and their faith says only male children can perform the last rites for their parents.’’
The selective abortions and the skewed male to female ratio have alarmed Indian society. Religious groups recently held a conference with the theme ``India’s missing daughters: Faith for Action Against Sex Selection.’’

A 2001 census showed that in four states, the ratio has dramatically declined to less than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. The ratio is still highest in Christian communities.

The study published in The Lancet showed that fewer females are born as second and third children if the first child in a family is a girl, the Reuters report said. This could be interpreted as a-boy-or-nothing effort on the part of families. No to another girl, the second one has to be a boy. Where did those missing second or third daughters go?

When I first learned about female feticide and the declining ratio of girls to boys, what played in my mind was a scene from a futuristic fiction where boys dramatically outnumbered girls, say, 10 to one. And there was this surreal stampede and panic among scientists to correct the situation by whatever means, including multiple births and cloning. Men were marrying men, women chose only the best and the brightest of men and the women who gave birth to daughters were to be envied.

Google for ``female feticide’’ and you’ll get plenty of eye-openers.