BOOK REVIEW: Unborn victims

Sex-selective Abortion in India: Gender, Society and New Reproductive Technologies

Editor: Tulsi Patel

Sage Publications

Price: INRs 495


It was Jonathan Duncan, the British Resident at Benares, who first discovered female infanticide among the Rajkumar Rajputs in Jaunpur, Benaras, in 1789. Female infanticide, in fact, has been an enduring feature of upper and upwardly-mobile Indians from ancient times. This is reflected in the Female Male Ratio (FMR), highly askew in favour of the males in the class-conscious northern India. Rapid modernisation and improvement in medical technologies has helped widen the gender gap. According to 2001 Consensus of India, in state of Punjab, there were only 793 females for every 1,000 males in the age group of 0-6 years, closely followed by Haryana (820), Gujarat (878) and Himachal Pradesh (897). Kerala, at 963, fared the best. The overall country average was 927.

Abortion was legalised in many western countries during the apogee of second-wave feminism in early 1970’s. Riding the same crest, India legalised it in 1971. At the same time, use of New Reproductive Technologies (NRTs) like amniocentesis, chorion villi biopsy (CVB) and ultrasonogram proliferated. While NRTs were primarily being used to detect congenital abnormalities in foetus in the developed world, in India, the same technologies were employed for sex determination. If a girl, a large number of women chose to abort.

Sex-selective Abortion in India, comprising 11 essays by eminent Indian demographers and social scientists, discusses the intricate relationship between women practicing sex-selective abortion and the socio-cultural and economic environment they are part of. It examines how women are conditioned to believe the superiority of one sex over the other, how they internalise this bias and how the patriarchal society reinforces it. Sons are assets, daughters liabilities. Sons are the family torchbearers and support for old age, daughters burdens and of little use in latter life. Sons bring in lavish dowry, daughters drain what little the family has.

The book traces how, contrary to popular belief, modernisation, capitalisation and economic liberalisation, when wedded to traditional mores and values, contribute towards gender bias. In these competitive times, the upwardly-mobile families cannot afford more than two children. And if one of the two is not a boy, the family won’t be able to marry into higher families and share in the benefits, both social and economic, such tie-up entails.

The 11th amendment of Muluki Ain forbids sex-selective abortion in Nepal. But considering cultural and religious similarities between the two countries and increasing use of NRTs in Nepal, there is a distinct possibility of sex-selective abortion insidiously catching up among Nepalis. The country can ill afford to ignore.