When health workers recently tallied the number of births in a district in northern India, they made a disturbing discovery. Of the 216 babies born in 132 villages in the district of Uttarkashi in the past three months, all were boys.
How could it be that not a single girl was born in that period, given that the natural sex ratio is roughly 105 males for every 100 females, according the World Health Organisation? Local officials have created a task force to discover the reason. But some think the answer is obvious. “It cannot be just a coincidence,” a social worker told the Indian broadcaster NDTV. “This clearly indicates female foeticide is taking place in the district.”
There are reasonable grounds for this suspicion. A census in 2011 concluded that in India as a whole there are 943 females for every 1,000 males. That ratio may be getting even worse. Although the country outlawed sex-selective abortion in 1994, the practice is still thought to be widespread. In 2015, Indian officials estimated that every day up to 2,000 girls die as a result of abortion and infanticide.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen was one of the first to raise the alarm. In 1990, he calculated that 100 million women were “missing” worldwide because of sex-selective abortions and other discriminatory practices. The number of missing women, he wrote, was “larger than the combined casualties of all famines in the 20th century”.
For cultural reasons, the problem is particularly acute in India. Poor families often see males as economically productive but females as a drain on resources. Marriage customs dictate that parents of girls must pay an expensive dowry.
But it is not only India that has a problem with distorted sex ratios. Other highly populated countries, such as China and Pakistan, do so too. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a ban on the importing of ultrasound machines from the West was lifted in the Caucasus. The sex ratio has deteriorated there ever since.
This poses a dilemma for Western feminists. They may argue that abortion is a fundamental component of women’s rights. Yet data from the developing world shows that abortion is being used to eliminate vast numbers of females.
Whenever this is mentioned, Western abortion supporters are eager to change the subject. Not only that: they have actually helped to defeat efforts to outlaw sex-selective abortion. In 2012, the House of Representatives rejected a bill to ban the practice (which is already prohibited in several US states).
In Britain, the situation remains confused. In 2013, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided not to bring charges against two doctors who were recorded agreeing to sex-selective abortions. The law, the DPP said, “does not, in terms, expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions”. MPs voted overwhelmingly to clarify the law a year later, yet the matter remains unresolved. In 2018, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a government advisory body, raised the alarm over Non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPTs) – a blood test that identifies an unborn child’s sex. The council said that a rise in private NIPT could result in Britain becoming a haven for sex-selective abortions.
So the West is failing abjectly to prevent the targeted elimination of females, all the while presenting itself as a global champion of women’s rights.
But the prognosis is not entirely bleak. In the early 1990s, South Korea had one of the world’s highest male-to-female ratios. By 2007, however, the ratio had returned to normal levels. It is argued that this change was driven by rapid economic growth, which transformed social attitudes towards girls, weakening the preference for sons. If the economies of India and China continue to grow, then it’s possible that they may return to a normal sex ratio.
Yet we should not be naïve. All the evidence suggests that sex-selective abortions, and even infanticide, are being practised on a large scale worldwide. For ideological reasons, many in our own countries would prefer not to acknowledge this reality. That is why we need to shout it from the rooftops.
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