By Maya Palit
The classic Margaret Atwood novel is the story of a world in which—among other horrible things—women’s reproductive rights go completely AWOL, and one class of women are enslaved only to give birth. Hulu recently released the trailer for its television adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale, and many American commentators have greeted it with the feeling that their current reality is not far from the terror of Atwood’s fictional world. Given that it’s becoming harder and harder for women to access abortion, contraception, or even advice about their choices.
This week, in one American state, lawmakers joked that women who want abortions should go to the zoo. In February, a politician in another American state argued that women should get written permission from her male sexual partner for an abortion because women are merely hosts. Is it sounding like a sci-fi TV show yet? But that’s America.
Let’s talk about dramatic events closer home. Last year, Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, had a bright idea. She suggested making sex determination during pregnancy—currently illegal under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Act (PCPNDT) of 1994—legal. The leap of logic was that it would help to curb if the gender of the child was registered, and the birth was tracked by doctors who would check on the mother up until safe delivery. Before Gandhi issued a statement clarifying that her remarks were ‘personal views’, not formal proposals for altering policies, NGO workers, health specialists, and women’s rights activists were very vocal about why her ideas were immensely short-sighted, to say the least.
Oddly enough, this hare-brained scheme has returned and is in the process of finding a home. On 7th April, a panel of the Maharashtra Assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC) recommended making pre-natal sex determination mandatory in order to prevent female foeticide. Its report, tabled in the Assembly on 9 April, laid out the plan of action: “When parents come for sonography, compulsory sex determination must be allowed and follow-ups must be done at the local level to ensure the couples come for further check-ups. It is necessary to visit these couples at home if they stop check-ups.”
The committee’s starting point, that currently the PCPNDT Act only criminalises doctors for carrying out sex selection tests and not parents, might sound like a salient one. But it’s important to remember that there was a reason that the PCPNDT Act provided several safe-guarding mechanisms for women, particularly with its 2003 amendments, which left pregnant women out of the Act. And this recognised that women frequently do not have autonomy in their choice to have a sex-selective abortion.
The plan to track parents during the pregnancy, to make sure they come in for tests and check-ups after being told the sex of foetus, leaves a lot of room for abuse by those intent on sex-selective abortions. PAC’s Plan B, in the event that the parents vanish, is to get health officials to visit the couples at home.
Needless to say, this plan could also go horribly wrong for a host of practical reasons—say if parents provide incorrect information about their address and contact details, or district health officers and doctors are co-opted or bribed into a decision to carry out an abortion if the baby is a girl. Doctors, district health officers, and NGOs, the suggested participants in the tracking system, might simply be inefficient or not possess the funds and bandwidth to follow up on the scores of couples who would presumably be coming in for consultations at clinics.
Extensive research on the active tracker device (a set-top box that was installed in sonography centres around the country in 2011 to monitor and record the tests conducted using the ultrasound machines), shows that they haven’t improved the sex ratio or been particularly useful in locating cases of PCPNDT violations. (What has been helpful, on the other hand, are the sting operations conducted by the advocate Varsha Deshpande, founder of the Lek Ladki Abhiyan movement which unearth instances of doctors carrying out illegal abortions.)
But most importantly, the PAC’s suggested plan of action would be a gross violation of the efforts to protect women’s privacy and safety. According to a statement issued and signed by 100 activists and feminists from the Forum Against Sex Selection, and several other health rights organisations, the PAC’s proposal would spell disaster for women in a number of ways.
“This new proposal will only result in a twenty-four hour surveillance of pregnant women both within the family and by the state authorities. It will unnecessarily target every woman bearing a female foetus, and will link any abortion that such a woman has (for any reason) to sex selection. This will adversely impact women’s already poor access to safe abortion. It will fuel a proliferation of illegal facilities for getting rid of unwanted female foetuses,” the statement read.
The statement expressed the view that the proposal was aimed at absolving medical professionals, who may be implicated in a sex-selective abortion, while also shifting the burden on the pregnant women. (Already the rates of conviction under the PCPNDT Act are low)
Rizwan Parvez, co-ordinator at Girls Count, a coalition of civil society organisations that work on efforts to increase the country’s sex ratio said that a deeply patriarchal sentiment was at the heart of PAC’s recommendation: “The problem in a country like ours is that a large section of society continues to view abortion as a sin rather than seeing it as a maternal health issue. A step like this to track pregnancy is purely motivated by such a mindset. Furthermore, legalising sex determination will target and jeopardise women, who will become victims of domestic violence, as the majority of people would not like women to carry female foetuses.”
We would then be facing a situation where families could well beat women into miscarriages if they can’t medically terminate a foetus that they now know is female.
Although health activists have agreed in the past that the current PCPNDT Act hasn’t been immensely successful, as its implementation was only ‘on paper’ for many years, Parvez quashes the view voiced by Gandhi that the PCPNDT Act has been a failure at improving sex ratios in the country. He said that a stringent implementation of the Act together with efforts to change societal attitudes would be the optimal combination: “Haryana and Rajasthan have shown immense improvements in their sex ratio at birth (Haryana recorded 950 female births for every 1,000 male births this March)—which is very important from a demographic point of view.
Instead of experimenting with making sex selection legal, the government and all concerned stakeholders should focus on ways to implement the PCPNDT Act and alter the mindset towards pre-birth discrimination against girls, while ensuring access to safe and legal abortions for women.”
At least Maneka Gandhi had the good sense to retract her suggestion soon after voicing it, whereas the PAC has been congratulating itself about its self-described ‘revolutionary’ idea. Sometimes public health committees make leaps of logic that just don’t seem to add up. And in this case, the revolution, if it comes, would undermine the hard work and years of dedication that Maharashtra and its activists put in to creating the Act against sex-selection in the first place.