It has been five years since the 2011 Census revealed the dismal sex ratio in India, its worst since Independence: That of 943 females per 1,000 males. Shockingly, child sex ratio (of those between 0-6 years of age) was lesser: 919 females per 1,000 males. Five years after the census, India is still grappling with this social anomaly despite having taken various measures to stem it.
Stirring a hornet’s nest, the Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi recently suggested that sex determination be made mandatory and each pregnancy be registered and tracked till the time of birth. Speaking at the sidelines of an event, Maneka said her ministry had sent a proposal for the same to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare under whose purview the Act falls. However, this proposal was soon retracted by the minister. When Tehelka contacted the Ministry of Women and Child Development, it defended Maneka’s statement by saying that the Act (PCPNDT) does not come under its purview. Why then did the minister make such a statement without proper deliberation?
For starters, her statement completely negates the premise of the existing law – Pre Conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994 (PCPNDT Act) – that bans sex determination unless it arises out of medical complications. The Act was enacted in the context of rising sex-selective abortions due to the ready availabilityof ultrasounds. “Sex-selective abortions rose into prominence because ultrasounds would identify the female foetus and parents who preferred a son began terminating the pregnancy,” says Mohan Rao, social medicine and community health professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Through banning sex determination, the Act was also clamping down on medical practitioners who aided such abortions.
Maneka’s ‘proposal’ thus met with lot of resistance from various sections as it was seen as a move to benefit medical players. “This is a reprehensible statement which points to the fact that Maneka isn’t there for the welfare of women but for the welfare of the medical industry,” says Rao. An abortion, whether sex-selective or not, cannot be done without the help of the medical fraternity. A statement issued in public domain by a national collective of women’s organisations and social activists points out that Maneka’s statement undermines the efforts to check the handin- glove involvement of health professionals. “The pcpndt Act was formulated precisely to address the manner in which unscrupulous health professionals and corporate profiteers have misused technology and made sex selection into a lucrative business venture,” it reads.
Shifting the onus of the pregnancy on the mother effectively means overlooking the role of the medical establishment. “Tracking of pregnancies will conveniently let the medical fraternity off the hook and that will definitely lead to further increase in female foeticide,” says Tehmina Arora, lawyer and founder of Vanishing Girls, a campaign dedicated to fight selective sex abortion.
Maneka’s statement has again brought to the fore the many debates surrounding the subject of abortion and foeticide. The government has time and again sought to address the problem of sex selective abortions from the National Action Plan (1991-2000) to the most recent Beti Bachao, Beti Padhaoscheme, launched by the Centre. While these create awareness against sex selective abortions, one is forced to question the extent to which the State can interfere in the personal and biological sphere of a woman’s life.
Through her statement the minister has reinstated the fact that women will be the only ones made answerable, overlooking external factors that push for a selective termination of pregnancy. Additionally, such deep intrusions in a woman’spersonal life reiterates that she is incapable of making decisions for herself. “The statement made by Maneka Gandhi is unacceptable as it turns towards women’s surveillance and policing, making it extremely problematic,” says Nivedita Menon, feminist and professor in JNU for comparative politics and political theory.
Further, Maneka’s ‘proposal’, if implemented will impinge on a woman’s right toabortion. The argument arises from an inconclusive debate around a woman’s right to her body and thus her choice whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. The other facet of this debate equates terminating a pregnancy with foeticide – the word foeticide coinciding with words like matricide or patricide amounting to murder. However, what could complicate matters is when a woman herself makes a choice towards sex selective abortion.
Another problem arising out of Maneka’s comment is the implication of criminalising pregnant women who already bear the brunt of gender discrimination in society. “I have faced opposition from all quarters in my fight against female foeticide. A woman willing to fight to save her daughters has no support system. Such a move will only deem the woman as criminal,” says Dr Mitu Khurana, survivor of violence for giving birth to twin daughters and one of the most prominent faces fighting against sex selective abortions in India.
It is an open secret that women are at the risk of being largely mistreated if their families do not want a daughter and with sex selection being mandatory, she will find herself in a hostile environment detrimental to her and her child. “Women carrying female foetuses will be starved and beaten, “accidental stove bursts” will increase when relatives find out that the child is a girl,” says Khurana. “Women are mostly forced into sex selective abortions and tracking a pregnancy is going to make the woman even more vulnerable with the risk of her being thrown out of the house,” agrees Arora.
With her statement, the minister has shown disregard for the intention behind the Act to prevent sex discrimination. Maneka has conveniently overlooked the fact that the prevalent preference for a son will pressurise women to complete their term of pregnancy even if at the risk of her health. On the other hand, reversal of the PCPNDT Act, may imply repetitive abortions which is also going to have adverse effects on her reproductive health. As number of illegal abortions rise, the very lives of women will be endangered.
Notwithstanding, all the other complications that the State will have to face, tracking pregnancies till birth will require a massive scale of surveillance – monitoring an annual average of 2.5 crore pregnancies – which it is ill equipped for. “The government has failed to monitor a few thousand radiologists and doctors. How does it propose to monitor lakhs of pregnancies for nine months?” asks Khurana. Keeping track of miscarriages whether accidentally or purposely induced is another mammoth task.
Feminist groups point out that the real root of the problem is the implementation of the current PCPNDT Act. According to a 2005 UNICEF report, 7,000 female foetuses were selectively aborted whereas only one percent of doctors faced prosecution. What also needs to be understood is that women’s right to their own body and private lives does not justify State interference. Female foeticide does not warrant sex determination and if the State indeed was to monitor pregnancies then it should be done with the intention of monitoring both the woman and child’s health.