Authorities in India may imprison entire families who pressure their female relatives into aborting female fetuses. Under the new initiative, which seeks to reduce the stigma of women giving birth to baby girls, defendants may be jailed for up to seven years.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper of Britain reported that Indian activists estimate that as many as 8 million unborn females were aborted over the past decade -- as young would-be mothers are pressured to produce only boys.
Under current laws, medical professionals who perform ultrasound tests to determine a baby’s gender can be fined or even jailed; however, such punishments are rarely enforced.
Now the government wants to go after the families that coerce young pregnant women into often-unwanted abortions.
An official at India’s Ministry for Women and Child Development told the Telegraph: "It is important to make families equally accountable. The families go to clinics performing sex-selection tests, so logically they initiate the process of sex selection and female feticide. We are seeking amendments in the present law to make families equally liable for the offense.”
She added: "Nothing has been decided, but it is likely there will be a jail sentence between 6 months to 7 years. The jail term will depend on whether the family was just involved in sex selection or both selection and subsequent abortion of the fetus.”
Dr. Anita Raj, a Professor in the Division of Global Public Health, Department of Medicine at The University of California at San Diego, indicated that while the overall abortion rate in India is lower than that seen in many other nations, the data indicates that the “selective abortion” of girls is higher and may be increasing.
The United Nations also estimates that Indian girls die at twice the rate of boys before they reach the age of five.
In some Indian families, regardless of wealth, a girl is often viewed as a financial burden -- in many cases, when a girl is married off, the families of the groom demand a dowry payment (which is illegal in India, but still widely practiced).
“The tradition of son preference is not unique to India, but it remains prevalent there, comprising women and girls’ health, status and lives,” Dr. Raj noted.
“Arguments to justify such male preference often focus on economics -- girls are economic burdens for the family where boys can become earners, and traditionally boys will care for parents when the parents become elderly, whereas girls will care for the families of those they marry.“
Moreover, the high abortion rate of female fetuses has led to a dramatic gender imbalance in India -- over the 50-year period from 1961 to 2011, the number of girls born per 1,000 boys plunged from 976 to 914, according to the census.
“I feel the demand [for abortions] every day," Dr. Neelam Singh, a gynecologist in Uttar Pradesh, told Al-Jazeera. "Parents say it's important to have a son in the family. They want to keep their family name. I see this as the most heinous kind of discrimination towards a girl child."
In Uttar Pradesh alone, men already outnumber women by almost 10 million.
However, some campaigners believe that if the new proposal turns unto law, it may actually makes things worse for pregnant women, not better.
"This should be looked at with great care,” said Ranjana Kumari of the Council for Social Research to the Telegraph.
“The woman is blamed for producing a female child. She faces discrimination, desertion and, to some extent, violence. So to talk about punishing the family is a risky proposition. The mother will be blamed, because she is the one who has gone for abortion. She will be threatened by her family and husband. Who will you criminalize? It is very difficult to establish. The women will get the blame and be penalized.
Kumari added: "The fundamentals of female empowerment will be absolutely tampered with. Control over our own bodies is a fundamental right for women.”
The Indian state of Maharashtra may raise the stakes even further by treating sex-selective abortions as “murder,” a crime punishable by a life sentence in prison.
Gender imbalance as a result of the abortions of female fetuses is also a problem in China.
A prominent Australian cleric has condemned such practices as “infamous” social policies and believes they will lead to serious demographic issues in Asia.
“Unlike Europe and Japan, where societies aged after they had become rich, in China and India, they will follow their more prosperous predecessors into serious demographic decline in a few decades, before wealth spreads across most of the community or at least of all the community,” Cardinal George Pell, an anti-abortion activist, thundered, speaking at a meeting of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Sydney.
“As well as coping with the unpredictable consequences of tens of millions of single men -- they can’t all become Catholic priests -- this must raise serious questions about whether we’re entering the Chinese century,” Pell, who is also the archbishop of Sydney, added.
The archbishop cited data indicating that in China there are now 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20, while in India, there are 7.1 million fewer girls than boys up to the age of six.
Clearly, such an imbalance may lead to significant social strife with millions of men unable to find wives.
"When 15 percent of young adult males in your population will never become head of household or heirs, you will alienate these men in ways that cannot be fixed," Valerie Hudson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, told Al-Jazeera. "Poor men will be the biggest losers in this equation.”
Dr. Raj concluded that: my feeling is that we would do better to reduce selective abortion of girls by increasing the value of women and girls in society, rather than restricting access to safe abortion services. Unsafe abortions remain a major health and human rights concern in India. Reducing access to safe abortions is not a means of improving the conditions for girls.”