Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is Sex-Selective Abortion Wrong?

Families in many regions in India, especially in the North, are loath to have a girl-child.

The reasons are complex.  There have been many in-depth studies about this phenomenon.  In essence, it is widely held that to be parents of a girl imposes certain heavy responsibilities and burdens with not enough compensation.  For example:
  • India is largely a patrilocal society.  In non-nuclear families, the wife becomes a part of the husband's family.  Parents invest in bringing up a marriageable woman only to see her leave and become a primary member of another family.
  • The tradition of dowry in which parents of the bride give gifts and money to the groom's family.
  • The daughters now have property rights over their parents' property, but since patrilocality still continues, this means that the illiquid property of a household gets partly owned by the daughter's new family (the in-laws) and thereby gets diluted.  (The tradition of dowry, by many accounts, was a liquid (in cash or gold) compensation to the bride from her family when she did not have property rights.  According to certain other naratives, it was a financial disincentive for the bride in case she ever thought of abandoning her new family.  If she abandoned her husband or her in-laws, the dowry was forfeited.)
  • An environment in which families have to worry about protecting the virginity, modesty and reputation of unmarried women in their homes.
  • Since property inheritance is patrilineal in most of India, to not have a son meant that there was no natural heir and there was a risk of losing control of the ancestral property.
  • The bride's parents are generally in a socially submissive posture relative to the groom's family.  The bride's parents and the bride are expected to be docile, pleasant and generous.  They are afraid of annoying their in-laws and go to great lengths to be amicable.  The fear being that if the groom's family was annoyed for any reason, the bride was going to be subject to taunts, harassment, perhaps even violence, or in extreme cases, she could even be turned out of her conjugal home.  The bride's status in her new home was considered tenuous and fragile, at least till she begot a son of her own (and thereby an eventual heir to her husband's family).
Short of abandonment or murder, there was till recently no solution to the "problem" of the burden of a daughter.  Not till medical advances made prenatal sex-determination possible, and the procedure of abortion become relatively safe.

These advances tempted many families with their promise of delivering a baby boy with 100% confidence.  Yes, there were risks to the pregnant mother's health.  But it is sobering that those risks were generally considered more acceptable than the risk of a daughter being born.

Abortion was legalized in India in 1971 by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act.  When abortions were illegal, they were still performed, albeit by possibly untrained hands in unsafe conditions.

It is hard to crack down against sex-selective abortions, since people will just specify other reasons for the abortion.  Therefore the Indian state criminzalized the prenatal sex-determination diagnostic procedures.  Even that proved notoriously hard to enforce.  The diagnostic center staff came up with code words or sign language to tell the expecting parents whether it was a male or a female fetus.  There is also, supposedly, now a simple blood test which can determine the gender of the fetus.  In my opinion, it is impossible in today's world to forcibly prohibit parents from knowing the gender of their unborn child.

Having failed there, now again the focus is on abortion clinics, with the widespread assumption that one is guilty of sex-selective abortion until proven innocent. Hence, we are again seeing a spate of illegal abortions, incidents of abandonment, cases of infanticide, etc.

Many who worry about this issue try to induce guilt about the murderous violence done on the "innocent" fetus. But that is an argument against abortion. So, unless we are against abortion per se, let us disregard that argument. If we accept that parents have a right to abort their unborn child because they do not want it to be born, then that right overrides a compassion for the fetus.

So, once abortion has been concluded to be a right of the would-be parents, does the state have a right to restrict that right by listing the only "proper" reasons for such a decision? If the parents only want a daughter (rare, I know), or only a son, or one son and one daughter, or only two sons, or whatever combination they might fancy, does someone else have the right to (and at the point of a gun, no less) tell them to wish otherwise?

It is perhaps better to offer them some counseling before their go in for the abortion, educating them about the health risks, risks to future pregnancies, etc. But in the end, the decision is their own.

What kind of affection and future is a daughter going to have from her parents who were forced against their will to have her? They may develop affection and a bond with her, but it is also likely that every time there is a challenge in bringing her up, they are going to look back at their forced decision and seethe with resentment.

If the argument is made that the mother usually is against abortion, but that she is coerced against her will by her in-laws, then it is a sorry state of affairs and points at the intimidation inherent in family structures in India. But unless she is capable and willing to be on her own and renounce her in-laws, interference by the state can only introduce further suffering into her life. The mother will probably be subjected to an illegal abortion, her girl-child may be murdered, or she herself might abandon it to again be in the good books of her in-laws, or the girl will grow up only to feel an unwanted burden.

The environment in which the girl-child is a huge cost and burden is a reality.  The desire to only have a boy is a symptom of this environment.  To legislate against this desire is not only futile, it might even be considered morally wrong by libertarians, and a way for conservatives to again make abortion difficult.  For example, in the US, the blurb of a book about these laws (such laws exist in the US too, though only in a few states) makes the remark that:
Rather than to combat gender discrimination, the report shows that sex-selective abortion bans are intended to limit access to abortion generally.
The long-term effect of this gender discrimination is to skew the gender ratio in a region, which can lead to social stresses leading to kidnappings and violence and rapes.  Such a situation can lead to either the demise of the society, or a draconian legislation which bans abortions altogether which will again (hopefully) reestablish the gender ratio.

I believe that a wide preference for a particular gender at birth is the symptom of a sick and crippled society.  But this crippling condition cannot be cured by forcing people to walk straight or be sent to jail.

Rich educated parents do not seem to have much of a preference.  For them, bringing up a boy or a girl is more about the boy or the girl than about the ramifications of their gender and property rights.  But that is not a luxury that poorer or more socially dependent people can exercise.

There are no easy responses to this phenomenon.  Affluent and educated cultures do not have this problem, so perhaps education and social security will solve it.  But those cultures have "other" problems: of emotional vacuums, of not wanting children at all, of loneliness and breakdown of family structures.  To want kids to fulfill your expectations introduces one kind of problems, to want them to live their own lives introduces others.

Perhaps it is the wider structures of capital and culture which puts these stresses on families, and given this modern environment of economic insecurity and emotional neuroses, there is no real solution but to just live with this suffering.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written Harman.If got you thought right , you feel it is wrong !

All Societies and every level of income classes or at what level of education they have the desire of "Son" still strong . Blame it our cultural upbringing or societal norm patriarchal will always be their and thus desire of having son.

Indeed, education will bring this desire down. However , I strongly believe, only society who will not discriminate between girl or boys where they would not see child as "Investment for old age" and "who will take their name forward".

How many of us do actually remember our great grandfather!!!

Things are changing as people are started seeing their daughters achieving and living life independently..Just wish girls get more right to live their life !