As I waited, I read an unremarkable-looking board which announced that sex-selective abortions were illegal. Even before the ultrasound, the sonographer handed me a form to sign, provided by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, which declared that the sex of my unborn child had not been revealed to me. I was then only five weeks pregnant and it would have been impossible to tell the sex of my child.
Most feminists will agree that the right of women to control our bodies by deciding whether we want to be pregnant and bear a child is non-negotiable. Many states in the US are currently attempting to out-do each other in imposing ever-more-horrific conditions on women’s access to abortion.
In India, our legal right to abortion is largely dependant on the authority of doctors and we must be vigilant. However, when it comes to the law, feminists occupy diverse positions.
Some feminists argue that the technology, both for sex-determination and sex-pre-selection, already exists. A technology that is hard to regulate and many narratives of creative ways of circumventing the law abound. They argue that any attempt to walk a careful tightrope between being pro-abortion and anti-sex-selective abortion is doomed to failure and that we would do better to consolidate our gains on women’s right to abortion and safeguard these.
Others point to the fact that a law regulating this technology was a feminist victory and we should do all we can to buttress this law. The first group avers that inviting the state to regulate our reproductive decisions is probably not the smartest thing to do. To which the second group responds by saying that the law maybe an imperfect weapon, but is the only one we have. They argue that a declining sex ratio will also mean further discrimination against women.
Another equally fraught debate is one that places sex-selection against the selection of ‘normality’. Disability rights activists (who are often also feminists) fault feminists for condemning sex-selective-abortion while condoning abortion on grounds of “abnormalities”. Some feminists point out that the care of disabled children falls disproportionately on women, and as such they must have the choice not to have disabled children. Countering them, disability rights activists aver that giving birth to multiple girl children also often means various kinds of hardship including stigma and physical abuse for women but this does not deter feminist activists from acting against sex-selective abortions. In response some feminist activists have pointed out that if discrimination were removed the raising of girl children would necessitate no more work than that of raising boys and that the problem is cultural. Challenging this, disability rights activists argue that the vision of what constitutes hardship is also cultural.
It is not my intention to argue here that the sex ratio is not a cause for concern. Sex-selective abortions demonstrate the lack of value attached to the girl-child in India. So do the much higher drop-out rates of girl-children in schools, the comparatively lower access to nutrition, health-care and all manner of resources.
I have used the term sex-selective abortion rather than female foeticide intentionally to ensure that women rather than embryos or fetuses are located at the centre of the discussion. In our quest to save the ‘unborn-girl-child’ we must not forget that there are (usually) adult women in very complex circumstances making very difficult decisions on whether or not have abortions. Our first concern must be for our ‘already-born’ women and girls. Only then can we ever hope to transform the circumstance in which girl children are conceived and born.
(Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist and teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai)