On 1st May, 2016, China modified its legislature to counter the gender imbalance in its population. Professionals and individuals who participate in prenatal sex determination would be fined close to US$ 4,600. The regulation has not only tightened rules for parties directly involved in the process, but has also brought pharmaceutical companies and advertisers in its purview.
Retail pharmacies are not allowed to sell abortion drugs, bigger firms would be fined for selling ultrasound or chromosome identifying devices to unqualified people and advertisements promoting prenatal sex discernment or sex-selective abortions will be punished.
The root cause for the need of such legislation is the preference for a male child, someone to take the legacy forward, so to say. This cultural influence was further compounded by the now defunct one-child policy that the state mandated in the 1970s. In 2014 men in China outnumbered women by 33 million. The gender ratio at birth was also abysmal during the same year. However, some are of the opinion that the one-child policy cannot be held entirely accountable for the disparity in population.
China’s concerns echo India’s. Two of the world’s most populated countries are facing similar challenges in terms of balancing their sex ratio. The factors that led to the discrepancies are also shared. The daunting power that the nation’s ethos holds has led the state to ‘intervene’ in the reproductive rights of its citizens. Some might even contend, however untenable such a proposition might seem, that it is a ‘right’ to choose to only give birth to male children from a pro-choice point-of-view. Regardless, state intervention in such personal matters ought to be a deep cause of concern.
Should the state in its attempt to harmonise the working/birthing population criminalize medical procedures that in most other countries are administered as a supplementary practice?Fundamentally, these issues arise from a set of cultural values and biases that are deeply ingrained, so it would be foolish to believe that legislation can tackle them in one sweep, never mind the moral or ethical questions involved in such legislation or state intervention.
India attempted to counter declining sex ratios with the Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act – 1994 (PCPNDT). It was amended most recently in 2014. The Act criminalizes the act of sex determination before birth. However, in February this year the Union Woman and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi seemed to have hinted a change in tack. Instead of concealing the gender of the foetus, she suggested that the gender be revealed and then the mother registered. Needless to say, there is something very disconcerting with a proposition that calls for the state to register and track the progress of all pregnant mothers in the country.
A policy that would not merely decriminalize, but make mandatory pre-natal sex determination or gender selection of the foetus could be prone to several loopholes; not that the current law has an impeccable record. Will the state force a pregnant mother to give birth, assuming it is an unwanted/unplanned conception? A woman could also be forced to employ unhealthy or risky methods to abort should such facilities be denied to her. Does the policy not violate individual rights when asking each woman to list her womb into state records? Is that not a grave violation of the right to privacy?
Even if we concede that the policy might be able to do some good and help balance the skewed sex-ratio, a number of other concerns remain. Does her proposition count for the continued shortfall of quality health/administrative services in a still-agrarian Indian economy? Does it accommodate for abandonment of children after they are born? What about bureaucratic discrepancy or graft? Does the state have enough funds to finance such a copious project?
On a lighter note, will the state, in a dystopian, Orwellian future, extend its control on reproductive rights and begin coupling people to manufacture perfect children?
To reiterate what is already said, both China and India are grappling with skewed sex ratios stemming out of social and cultural practices. In India one may point to patriarchy as broadly responsible for families’ preferences for a son. Social ills like dowry, women not being heirs to property, women’s careers only considered as hobbies rather than full-fledged ends to a livelihood, women being considered the weak and vulnerable sex, and strict and perpetuating gender roles have worsened the prospects for a woman, leading to female foeticide or infanticide.
However, these social ills are not all-encompassing. There are several sections in our society which do not conform to societal tendencies and where the sex-ratios are more balanced. But a change in policy over reproductive rights cannot curtail the underlying factors responsible for a distorted sex-ratio.
A poorly thought-out policy might even have unintended consequences, and may even result in a further decline for the sex-ratio battle that the government is trying to win.
The author is currently working at the Economist Intelligence Unit as an editor and has been in the news and research business for over five years.