Gynecologists have finally begun making noises against sex selective abortions. The fraternity that openly held out guarantees of delivering only males by ensuring that female fetuses were eliminated and made easy money while performing this 'greatly needed social service' is beginning to feel the heat.
This was highlighted at the recent two-day national workshop on Women's Sexual and Reproductive Rights in New Delhi organized by the Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Societies of India (FOGSI).
According to the 2001 census, only 927 female children are born for every thousand male children. According to a FOGSI-Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) brochure circulated at the workshop, "Though official figures do not support the claim, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) estimates that not less than five million female fetuses are being aborted or killed at birth annually."
It can be assumed that if gynecologists banded together and decided not to ask an ultrasonographer to determine the sex of the fetus and also refused to remove the fetus only because of its gender, sex selective abortions would simply die out for want of trained hands. Instead of this, many gynecologists chose to adopt an oath against sex selective abortion without working out a mechanism to ensure that the oath is fulfilled and violators are brought to book. Moreover, any expectations of soul-searching, criticism of peers for lending a hand to this downslide in the female sex ratio or even a generalized discussion on professional ethics were belied at the workshop.
To make matters worse, gynecologists speaking at the session harped on the need to 'change mindsets' and condemned sex selective abortions as 'the earliest form of discrimination', without examining their own role in making it possible. To add insult to injury, the participating doctors also chose to make partners of religious leaders in their belated recognition of the issue. And in a controversial move, FOGSI invited religious leaders including Sadhvi Ritambara to discuss sex selective abortions.
Outraged at the invitation to the Sadhvi, known for her militant communal diatribes, Delhi women's organizations including Saheli, Jagori, Nirantar, All India Democratic Women's Association and the Joint Women's Program issued a statement at the venue. "Ms Ritambara has always been a blatantly communal voice...With what right can she be allowed to speak of women's sexual and reproductive rights, when she represents the politics of hatred that has sanctioned so much sexual violence on women and children in Gujarat?" asked the statement.
"We understand that the doctors are trying to work in partnership with other forces but we must also choose our partners with care," Vani Subramanian of Saheli told the gathering. Retorting to this charge, FIGO President Dr Shirish Seth said, "People believe in religion," adding, "When religious leaders give a message the picture changes."
Yet, whether religion can be a transformative force is highly debatable. The participating religious leaders stuck to a prepared script: asserting that their faiths hold women in high esteem and condemning sex selective abortions. But none had any concrete suggestion on how to go about correcting the imbalance.
Moreover, many of the utterances of the religious leaders were in contradiction of women's rights. For instance, in the time-honored tradition of blaming the victim, Sadhvi Ritambara said, "It is the woman who practices discrimination against her own kind. She is the one who doles out food and gives less to the daughter. You can't blame religious leaders (for this) and get away from the fact that women accept their secondary status." Burying the issue under a long harangue against the modern 'westernized' woman, she added that a woman's identity depends on the 'fulfillment of maternal instincts'. "Unborn girls must first get the right to birth and then must live with compassion and maternal feelings informing their minds," she said. "Abortion is murder," declared the Reverend Anil Cuoto, Archbishop of Delhi. "According to the Bible, God is the author of life and nobody has the right to take it," he continued, negating women's hard-won right of control over their bodies and abortions.
Some religious reformers, however, were willing to question the role of institutionalized religion. "Had scriptures been so good, the world would have been a different place today. Scriptures are not an unmixed blessing. They do contain discrimination against women. A truly enlightened priest is one who will reject these discriminatory passages and admonish followers to not follow them," Swami Agnivesh asserted. Agnivesh, a rebel Arya Samaji, also made the much-needed distinction between abortion and sex selective abortion. "Sex selective abortion must stop but women should have the right to abortion. Women in Gujarat who are victims of mass rape must have the right to abort if they wish to and not carry their forced pregnancies to full term. Even in cases of matrimonial rape, women should have the right to abort," he asserted.
Given such divergent views, nobody at the workshop got a chance to point out that the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act was passed in 1994 following a sustained campaign by women's groups. Or that it took a petition in the Supreme Court to force authorities to start implementing the law. The petition has unleashed a flurry of orders and put the fear of litigation into the hearts of gynecologists. Filed by the Mumbai-based Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), Pune-based Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM) and activist Sabu George, the petition also prays for the inclusion of techniques of pre-conception sex selection in the ambit of the Act.
It was left to A R Nanda, Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, to put the role of the petition on record. Nanda also lamented that despite the Court's strict view of the matter only 15,000 ultrasound machines have so far been registered under the Act.
Many women's activists and doctors also felt that the shifting of the entire onus of sex determination and sex pre-selection on to the public was an attempt to absolve the medical profession of its ethical and legal obligations. "By converting a mass criminal act into a social demand, a club of elite gynecologists is trivializing the issue. If the desire for a son can be a justification for sex selective abortion then desire for sex can be cited as justification for rape," said Dr Puneet Bedi, a Delhi-based gynecologist.
Indeed, by focusing only on the 'demand' side of the business of sex determination and roping in religious leaders to 'change the mindset' of the public, the medical profession has once more refused to look inwards at the supply of medical technology that is misused to eliminate female fetuses.