My younger sister, Rachel, celebrated her birthday a couple of days ago. Growing up, there was never any question that my parents adored their new baby.
Rachel and Rebecca circa 1980
Rachel’s experience, however, was not shared by millions of girl children born into families who preferred to have a son rather than another daughter. Birth order is a significant risk factor; girls born second, third, or fourth (or later) face the highest risk. Today, as a result, millions of girls in India are missing. Since 1991 more than 12 million girls have been killed just because they were girls.
Unfortunately, India’s poorly enforced law to prevent prenatal sex determination and stop the country’s “gendercide” has done little to stop new and more advanced methods of determining fetal sex. For example, blood from a finger prick of a woman in Punjab in her seventh week of pregnancy could be rushed to a laboratory in the US, and the test results could arrive in less than a week. One can easily find modern sex-determination methods advertised on the internet that are euphemistically referred to as “family balancing services.”
Rachel arrived in the mid-1970s, at a time when India began to actively dispose of baby girls with the help of sex-selection technologies such as amniocentesis and ultrasound. Amniocentesis was introduced in India to detect genetic abnormalities. As government-sponsored family planning efforts began to persuade families to limit the number of children, however, many couples turned to these technologies to find out the baby’s sex. Then, knowing their child was female, families considered abortion in order to avoid having too many girls and to ensure that they would have at least one son. Some ultrasound clinics geared their business to families who feared paying for high dowries by promoting their sex-detection services with advertisements like this: “Pay a few hundred rupees now rather than lakhs (1 lakh = 100,000 rupees) later.”
Proponents of permissive abortion often cite financial exigency as one the main reason women choose to end their pregnancy. Yet money is not the issue. If anything, households with higher incomes have even greater financial capacity to engage in “family balancing” by one means or another. According to a Lancet study, the sex ratio for second-order children when the first-born is female is even more skewed (806 girls per 1000 boys) in wealthier households and where the mother has ten or more years of education.
Furthermore, Indian-Americans are among the most highly educated and financially well-off ethnic groups in the U.S. But signs of skewed sex ratios can be seen in the diaspora’s demography. Analysis of birth data in California between 1991 and 2004 reveals the growing use of sex-selection among Indian- Americans in California to ensure they have a son. Son preference has persisted in the face of tremendous privilege and wealth such that an Indian woman in California is more likely than women from any other ethnic group to terminate her pregnancy if she discovers she is carrying a girl and if her previous children were female.
In May 2015, California Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) introduced a bill to ban sex-selective abortion in California. The bill was defeated by a 13-6 vote in its first committee. Opponents of the bill suggested that such bills could perpetuate “racial stereotypes” and roll back a woman’s right to choose and possibly criminalize the discussion about reproductive choices between a physician and their patients. Yet nations such as France and Germany, which boast staunch pro-choice and pro-abortion rights laws and protections, have banned sex-selective abortions.
In Britain, a bill to end sex-selective abortion was defeated after a letter by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) was circulated stating that ban may leave women “vulnerable to domestic abuse.” BPAS and the TUC suggested that a ban on sex selective abortions might increase the risk of women being abused by partners who do not want to father girls. In other words, a measure to stop the actual killing of unborn girls was criticized on the premise that it might lead to the abuse of some women. In fact, data from India strongly suggest that it is the practice of sex-select abortion — in contexts of virtual legal and cultural impunity — that is significantly associated with a wide variety of other abuses of women, such as abductions and forced marriages, levels of gang rape, assault, and dowry-related deaths.
School girls in Bangalore
The causal connection is not hard to fathom. Sex-selective abortion both presupposes and causes a grotesque misogyny. It presupposes that girls are of less worth. And once a society has succeeded in killing enough girls on this premise, the consequent shortage of girls sets in motion further assaults on the shrinking number of marriageable women.
In India marriage remains near-universal, with over 90% of men and women tying the knot. Right now, the statistics are worrying. Even if, by some miracle, the sex ratio were to stabilize by 2050, there would still be an excess of over 30 million single men waiting to marry. As a consequence, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, kidnapping and abduction of women (much of which is related to forced marriage) increased threefold in the past ten years. Uttar Pradesh, which has one of the lowest sex ratios in India, is responsible for the highest number of kidnapping and abductions of women and the third-highest number of rape cases.