Does having access to abortion overturn patriarchy? Here is one perspective.
In the wake of the furor over abortion laws in Alabama and Louisiana what is the connection between access to abortion and women’s rights, in other countries? With or without access to abortion, women have always been sidelined when it comes to decisions about having a baby. In India, where women do have access to abortion, the preference for male children drives social and cultural practices that further entrench patriarchy.
A few years ago, I came across an online pregnancy store that catered exclusively to a pregnant clientele. Besides vitamins and baby books, it sold a diagnostic kit that could conclusively predict the sex of an unborn child. As early as seven weeks into gestation, with a few drops of the pregnant woman’s blood, the kit claimed that it could predict the sex of the fetus within 48 hours with greater than 95% accuracy. To make this prediction, the highly sensitive technique uses real-time polymerase chain reaction to analyze fetal DNA circulating in maternal blood. As a scientist I celebrated this application of cutting-edge technology, but as an Indian woman brought up in a culture that has traditionally favored males, I dreaded its implications and applications.
Growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai) as the only girl child, born between two boys, my childhood had been a happy one. I lived in a small apartment with my brothers and parents, but our extended family consisting of my paternal grandparents, aunts, and cousins, was scattered across the suburbs. We met frequently, during festivals and at family functions such as engagements, weddings and births. I was secure in my place in our nuclear family and considered myself special until the day I heard my paternal grandmother exclaim unhappily that “yet another grand-daughter” had been born.
It was a chaotic morning at grandma’s tiny apartment, a place that seemed to miraculously expand on special days like this one, when the clan had gathered for the naming ceremony of a newborn cousin. My father’s six sisters, my mother, and my uncle’s wife were busy making flower garlands and decorating the baby’s crib while a cook hired for the event gave orders to his assistant in the kitchen. I played hide and seek with my cousins, running between women bustling about in silk sarees, handing out cups of coffee to the men engaged in debates about cricket and politics. To my ten-year-old eyes, my tall grandmother was like a sturdy banyan tree who provided shelter and support to her large brood with grit and grace. She had ensured the education of her daughters and had saved enough from my grandfather’s meager salary to pay for each of their weddings.
“Why did she say ‘yet another girl’ so sadly?” I asked my mother, unable to comprehend her unmistakable disappointment. “Is it not good to be a girl? Are boys special?”
I had sensed a difference in previous exchanges, not just within the extended family but in the world at large. Every so often, we would receive a box of sweets from relatives and neighbors, announcing the birth of a son, the day the child was born. The birth of daughters, however, was something that we usually found out indirectly, much later.
At the end of the school year, friends of my parents would ask if “I had passed,” a phrase used to indicate mere academic competence to progress to the next grade; they were clueless about the stellar report card I brought home each year. While my parents seemed pleased with my academic performance, it didn’t seem to matter to anyone else. There were discussions of the educational degrees of the men of the extended family, but hardly any talk of the qualifications of the women. Through the subtle sidelining of my achievements, in the unbridled celebrations at birth of male children, through covert omissions and overt actions that communicated a preference for males, I had figured out that the world didn’t rate women very highly. But my grandmother was different. Or so I had thought. I struggled to reconcile her words, which had been very clear in their intent, with my idea of her.
“I don’t know why she said it,” my mother said. “Maybe because she has six daughters, she thinks boys are special. But you are my one and only girl. You are special to me.” My mother hugged me tightly.
I often wonder how I would have turned out if my mother hadn’t said the right words that day. Her words have stayed with me over the decades because they were not mere platitudes; while her hug made me feel wanted and loved, what she communicated to me in no uncertain terms was the strength of her belief. Her opinion in this matter was different from that of her husband’s family. She wasn’t buying into the deeply entrenched gender bias that permeated even educated families like ours.
Upon my return to India in 2003, after spending fourteen years of young adulthood in the US, I found to my great disappointment that the preference for male children continued to run rampant across regions, religions, castes, and classes, just as it had in every preceding generation. According to one report on the 2001 census, the child sex ratio (number of girls per 1000 boys in the 0–6 age group) stood at 845, a significant drop from 904 in 1991. This ratio had continued to drop in every decade since India’s independence in 1947.
The decline in the number of girls, while remarkable in itself, was more shocking because the worst drops were not among the rural poor but the urban elite. Cities like Delhi and Mumbai showed a sharp drop and within each city, the sharpest declines were in the most affluent pockets. The widespread acceptance of the belief among the educated, urban population that a son is required to perpetuate the family lineage and to enhance social prestige, came as a rude shock.
As a scientist, I worry about an emerging India in which education, exposure, and affluence have not inculcated a culture of equality of the sexes, but, instead, enabled access to sophisticated diagnostic tools to favor the process of sex selection. Ultrasound technology is routinely used during pregnancy. Its ability to detect the sex of the fetus has led to widespread abortion of female fetuses, necessitating the implementation of laws such as the Prenatal Diagnostic Technique Act and Rules-1994 to ban the use of medical intervention for the purpose of sex determination. The law prohibits sex selection before and after conception and regulates the use of diagnostic techniques used for detecting genetic abnormalities and other disorders.
In most diagnostic clinics, a poster of a pregnant sari-clad woman along with a clear warning of the consequences of prenatal sex determination is prominently displayed. Medical practitioners and institutions using such technologies are liable to be penalized with a fine of INR 10,000 (SGD200/USD143), imprisonment of three years for initial conviction, and even greater penalties, including suspension of medical license for subsequent conviction for persons found guilty of violating the law. Even persons seeking such intervention can be fined or imprisoned similarly.
For wealthy Indians, this ban has never been a true deterrent since they could easily afford the diagnosis outside the country and arrange for an abortion inside. Unlike in the U.S, abortion is legal in India, a provision in the law ostensibly to give more reproductive freedom to women in a country already suffering from the burden of a large and growing population. For the illiterate and poor, bearing daughters is a double burden. In addition to the social stigma, with the dark cloud of dowry looming over the future, hapless mothers sometimes resort to the barbaric practice of female infanticide.
In such a social climate, I am apprehensive about the impact of this new non-invasive technology that will now enable sex determination earlier in gestation. I know a young mother of two adorable little girls who is recovering from the trauma of having given birth to a still-born baby boy just a few weeks ago. Perhaps this scientific advance would help her please her mother-in-law by producing a male heir for the family, by enabling her to terminate an undesirable pregnancy earlier. To do so would require more frequent cycles of conception, detection and abortion, until the baby turns out to be of the desired sex. Wouldn’t the young mother be better served by technology that helps her regain her health and vitality in order to take better care of her young daughters instead?
Among my most memorable interactions in the US were the conversations I had with friends and colleagues who truly were happy about the news of my pregnancy. No one asked me whether I preferred to have a son or daughter. Their gender-neutral approach to becoming a parent was refreshing, notwithstanding the other gender-specific disparities that I observed. Women were still paid less than men for the same job and, without exception, women bore a larger share of household work and greater responsibility for childcare. I was surprised to find that abortion was a hotly debated subject, instead of a tool to empower women. The debate felt unnecessary and regressive in a country where the women’s movement had had a head start, compared to my home country.
Now, two decades into the new millennium, I occasionally come across Indian families who seem content with their daughters, but I nurse the hope for a day when the announcement of a birth of a girl child is uniformly heralded with uninhibited joy all over India. Will this happen in my lifetime I wonder?
Many social initiatives are in place, including a scheme that supports free education for girls. Public service advertisements about the legal consequences of infanticide and feticide are frequently aired on radio, TV, and other social media channels, along with warnings about laws prohibiting the practice of demanding dowry from the girl’s family at the time of the wedding. Laws and their enforcement, however, take a long time to produce an impact.
In the meantime, we need not merely educated but enlightened parents, especially mothers like mine, who truly rejoice in their daughters, offer equal opportunities to their sons and daughters, and believe that a family can be complete even without a son. Ultimately, every daughter who grows up in such a family, will not thirst for a son or expose herself to unreasonable risk to satisfy those who seek sons for their salvation. In such a world, every such daughter will choose to have, or not, children based on her own situation and circumstance. Advances in prenatal sex detection/selection techniques will be of no consequence because pink or blue, any one will do.
Every woman deserves the right to choose when and how she becomes a mother, because women aren’t just the ones who bear children, they are also the ones who care for them, across cultures, across countries, and across centuries. No law is powerful enough to change this universal truth.
Ranjani Rao, scientist and writer, originally from India, former resident of USA, lives in Singapore and writes at https://storyartisan.press/ranjani-rao/.
Originally published at https://singaporeunbound.org on June 23, 2019.