June 19, 2006|By Ken Moritsugu INQUIRER FOREIGN STAFF
The televised video, shot with a hidden camera, was a bit foggy, but the message was clear.
A pregnant woman, sitting in a doctor’s office, explained that she was carrying a girl. She already had two girls, she said, and didn’t want a third. That’s why she was seeking an abortion.
It was a lie, but the doctor took the bait. For 1,500 rupees, about $33, the doctor agreed to perform the abortion – in violation of a rarely enforced law that prohibits abortions for sex selection.
The video, broadcast last week, highlighted what activists say is a growing problem in India: the aborting of female fetuses by women who want to give birth to boys.
About four million female fetuses were aborted between 1986 and 2001, an average of about 250,000 a year, according to estimates by Mari Bhat, director of the International Institute for Population Sciences in Bombay.
“At this pace, we’ll soon have no girls born in this country,” said Sabu George, an activist in Delhi. “We don’t know where it will stop.”
With educational campaigns apparently having limited impact, activists increasingly are looking to the news media and local health department investigations to stem the tide of sex-selection abortions. Abortion is otherwise legal in India, though subject to restrictions similar to those found in the United States.
Last week’s broadcast on Sahara Samay, a 24-hour news channel, was by far the largest sting operation to date.
Shripal Shaktawat, 40, the channel’s Jaipur bureau chief, and Meena Sharma, 26, a freelance journalist, caught 100 doctors agreeing to carry out sex-selection abortions. The journalists used a mini-DVD camera that they hid in a handbag or a briefcase behind a sheet of plastic – hence the foggy images.
“For the first time on a mass scale, doctors have been trapped on camera, bringing to the fore actual evidence that this is happening in society,” said Kavita Srivastava, an activist in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state.
Forty of the doctors refused to perform abortions, and 10 of them lectured the journalists and their decoy on the evils of sex selection. But, for a fee, the majority allegedly agreed to break the law.
The accused deny the accusations. Some say the tapes were altered to make it appear that they had agreed to perform the abortions. Three doctors accused one of the journalists of trying to extort money from them before the broadcast.
The police have opened investigations against 20 doctors, as well as an investigation into the extortion claims.
Sex selection is nothing new in India, where boys are seen as breadwinners who’ll support their parents in old age, but girls are considered liabilities who’ll cost the family money, jewelry, clothing and perhaps even a car to marry off.
The British colonial government passed the Female Infanticide Act in 1870 to try to stamp out the killing of newborn girls by their parents. The arrival of ultrasound technology in the 1980s, which made it possible to determine the sex of a fetus, made sex selection easier. The Indian government banned its use for determining the sex of a fetus for nonmedical reasons in 1994.
But enforcement, left up to local authorities, has been weak in many states. Only one doctor and his assistant have been convicted under the law, and the impact of sex selection was evident in the 2001 census, India’s most recent.
Boys under the age of 7 outnumbered girls in the same age group 82 million to 76 million, or about 93 girls for every 100 boys. The numbers were starker in parts of northern India. The state of Punjab, for example, had only 79 girls for every 100 boys.
Contact reporter Ken Moritsugu at firstname.lastname@example.org.