Maharashtra's mandatory sex determination move will victimise women, not those exploiting their wombs

How much agency do women have over their own wombs? Can they choose when or whether to get pregnant? Or choose not to bear children at all?  Can they choose to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy? Or abort a foetus with congenital medical problems?  And in today’s context, can they choose to give birth to and cherish a baby immaterial of its gender?

The suggestion of the Maharashtra Government’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that sex determination should be made mandatory and that women should be held responsible for the safety of the female fetuses in their wombs has been ripped apart by activists, academics, social workers and others involved in trying to curb sex selective abortion. This is because they realise that, more often than not, the pregnant woman is the one who has least agency over her own womb.

Maharashtra has always had an ambivalent relationship with the whole issue of sex selective abortion.  Way back in 1985, it was one of the first states to recognise the problem and take steps to curb it.  This was when the Mumbai-based Forum Against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-selection (FASDSP) launched a campaign against sex determination in clinics. Amniocentesis, the only sex determination test available in those days, had been introduced to our 'son hungry' country in 1978 and within a few years, doctors across the country were offering it as a desirable intervention which would enable women to have “therapeutic” abortions, help them to create “perfect” and compact families and give “relief” to women who were anxious to have male children. According to Saheli, a Delhi-based NGO, nearly 78,000 female fetuses were aborted between 1978 and 1982.

Suman, a 25-year-old pregnant woman, lies on an examination table as a nurse places her hands on her stomach during a check up at a community health centre in the remote village of Chharchh, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, February 24, 2012. In rural Madhya Pradesh, an innovative free maternity ambulance service called "Janani Express", which runs in partnership between the state government and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), is trying to increase the number of babies born in clinics where proper care can be provided to the mothers and newborn children, and infant mortality can be decreased. Before this initiative, women would have been left to give birth in the fields or on mud floors. Now, the free ambulance brings pregnant women across dusty roads to health clinics where they can give birth safely under basic medical supervision, be nursed afterwards and educated on the importance of breastfeeding and hygiene before returning to their villages and communities. The United Nations' International Women's Day will be celebrated on March 8. Picture taken February 24, 2012. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash (INDIA - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY POVERTY) - RTR2YWLQ

The Maharashtra Government Public Accounts Committee's suggestion that sex determination should be made mandatory is a problematic one. Representational image/Reuters

In 1986, the Maharashtra Government appointed a committee to look into the issue. By then there were an estimated 1000 gynaecologists in Mumbai and of them 70 percent were private practitioners.  A government sponsored sample study of 50 clinics in Mumbai done in this period revealed that most of them did amniocentesis for sex determination alone and in fact they promoted gender selection as a tool for population control.  In my book Disappearing Daughters, I quoted a Mumbai doctor who declared to a newspaper correspondent: ‘Emancipate the woman! Make her important. I hope their number decreases so that their status in society enhances'.

Today amniocentesis can still be used for sex selection. But the scan is by far the most widely used and misused medical diagnostic tool in this area. It is non-invasive and accurate and less messy.

Every pregnant woman who visits a doctor is required to have a scan to ensure the heath of the foetus in her womb. For gynaecologists the scan is a very important diagnostic tool which is used to ensure the health of the mother and the child in her womb. Since many genetically inherited diseases are gender related, diagnostic tests like amniocentesis, scanning and now the new DNA blood tests are all also used to detect the sex of the foetus.

If the doctors and scan operators stuck to just informing the parents about the health of the baby, there would be no problem. But over the last 30-odd years that these tests have been available, unscrupulous doctors, technicians and others have discovered that these tests can be used for making money. They are the ones who don’t care two hoots about the health of the mother or the child in her womb. For them the woman who is brought to them for undergoing a sex determination test is just a conduit for milking the family for money.

The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act was introduced in 1994. When sex determination became illegal, this underground “industry” gained in strength. As the PCPNDT Act put more checks and balances in place, these so-called medical professionals found other ways to escape the net. The cost of sex determination tests also went up as they had to be done in secret. The hapless woman would often be told that the child she carried in her womb was female, immaterial of its gender because then they could also perform the illegal abortion at a higher cost.

Today, all over the country, child sex ratios continue to plunge. In Maharashtra alone, the CSR dropped by around 30 points in just 10 years.  There are reports that the mandatory inspection of sonography centres and maternity homes is just eyewash.

Swati Jamdade, the woman who died in Sangli, seen here with her husband and two daughters. File photo

Swati Jamdade, the woman who died in Sangli, seen here with her husband and two daughters. File photo

In March, just a few days before the PAC made its recommendations public, the police recovered the remains of 19 infants buried in an open plot next to a hospital in Sangli District. The hospital belonged to Babasaheb Khidrapure, a homeopath. The police were investigating the death of a young woman whose husband had had a sex selective test and abortion performed on her by Khidrapure. They found several foetuses stuffed into blue plastic bags scattered across the plot which was full of sewage and waste. They also found 40 bags of skeletons, umbilical cords and other remains.  Their informers told them that foetuses which were less than two months old used to be destroyed in toilets using acid, while the older ones were buried. The well entrenched sex determination and abortion nexus obviously flourished with the blessings of the very government officials who were supposed to check it.

Swati, the 26-year-old woman who underwent the abortion, died. What could be worse than that? Without the services offered by this clinic, she would still be alive and so would the many babies killed and disposed of by the homeopath in such a callous manner.

The bottom line is that however aspirational it may be for families to have male children, without the active help of such unscrupulous members of the medical fraternity they would not be able to do it. Obviously no pregnant woman can perform a sonography on herself or read her own scan. In fact even families have to depend upon the sonographer or doctor to tell them the sex of the child. These people are supposed to be bound by law not to reveal the sex of the child.  And yet they do so, often with the active connivance of the very authorities who are supposed to curb this illegal activity.

While researching Disappearing Daughters, I met so many women who had been coerced into producing only sons.  They had undergone many abortions in the process, leaving them physical and emotional wrecks.  Some were very well educated women — like the teacher in Chandigarh or the well-known woman politician in Bengaluru who both wept as they told me of the family pressure exerted on them to get sex selective abortions.

Others were ignorant and totally subjugated. I met a woman who had been bought as a wife from a tribal area in Gujarat. Her husband was a Patel farmer. Most of the girls in his community had already been eliminated even before they were born. The sex ratio was abysmal. So now he was “forced” to buy a tribal woman to cook and clean and produce male heirs for him. This domestic and sex slave of his had also been forced to undergo several sex selective abortions till she produced three healthy sons.

These women were all victims — not perpetrators. The perpetrators were the ones who — fueled by greed — exploited their wombs.

Can a government which cannot keep track of the hundreds of illegal scanning and abortions centres which have flourished over the years with such impunity hope to track and monitor women carrying female fetuses? We live in a country where unregistered sonography machines are operated from hole-in-the-wall clinics and a woman is shunted from centre to centre for the scan and abortion. In such a scenario, who will keep track of her, and more importantly, who will monitor her health?

We also live in a society where motherhood is considered sacred but maternal health is not a priority. As it is, most women are confused between safe and unsafe abortions. Often they don’t even know that they are eligible to have legal abortions.

And the exploiters would like to keep these distinctions hazy because they provide more windows of opportunity.

Stringent punishment for those who break the law is the only solution. Victimising the victim will get us nowhere.

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2017 11:03:47 IST

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