Journalist and writer Mara Hvistendahl (Pic: www.marahvistendahl.com)
By Mayank Chhaya
Sex-selective abortion has been insidiously playing out in slow motion in India, China and several other Asian countries for the past two and a half decades, preemptively and deliberately preventing females from being born.
While the term sex-selective abortion is rather clinically precise, it does not offer a full measure of what its practice has meant in terms of its broader sociocultural implications for societies in India, China and elsewhere.
Journalist and writer Mara Hvistendahl has set out to address this crisis in her important new book “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.”
At its most basic sex-selective abortion is about the practice of aborting a female fetus simply because it is female. It is widespread in India and many other Asian countries and has been blamed for as many as 160 million women missing. However, its sociocultural consequences go far beyond the mere termination of tens of millions of female fetuses. In fact, the practice has the very real potential of skewing the sex ratio to the extent where the hyperbolic question ‘What if the world was full of men?’ may not remain all that hyperbolic.
Hvistendahl’s book, which has drawn strongly positive critical notices, puts this frequently ignored question in a context that is much more than the stereotypical explanation of the preference for boys as merely a manifestation of regressive Asian traditions. While the “boy preference” is prevalent in many societies throughout the world, including in the West, it has been significantly facilitated by technologies such as amniocentesis which, points out Hvistendahl, was introduced to India in the 1960s through a three million dollar aid from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Although the original purpose of amniocentesis, which draws amniotic fluid from a pregnant mother for testing purposes, was to determine any genetic abnormalities in the fetus, it started getting misused mainly to find out the sex of the fetus as well. The test gained rapid ground in big cities such as Bombay in the early and mid-1980s. For instance, a study in January, 1986, showed that of the 8,000 abortions performed in the city, 7,999 involved female fetuses. Experts say the trend of terminating female fetuses may be drawing much greater societal outrage now compared to the 1980s but it has by no means reduced sex-selective abortion over the decades.
I interviewed Hvistendahl for two separate stories I have written for the IANS wire as well as South Asia Monitor. Unlike the other two media outlets which are governed by limits on the length of their stories, on my blog I have the opportunity to publish the interview uncut.
One example of the way Hvistendahl, who is a correspondent with Science magazine and writes extensively for other journals,approaches the theme of her book with great deliberation is found in this early passage: “Since I refuse to venture a guess when life begins, this is not a book about death and killing. I do not talk about feticide or gendericide or genocide, though some people I interviewed use those terms. On the other hand, I don’t believe the gradations in fetal development and the process by which life takes shape should be ignored, for they are what make widespread sex selection possible. Women who would never kill a newborn girl may abort on the basis of sex, and women who would never selectively abort may feel differently about eliminating embryos or sorting sperm. But in the end this book is not about life and death but about the potential for life—and denying that potential to the very group responsible for perpetuating our beleaguered species,” she writes.
Here are excerpts from the interview which is being divided in parts to be published over the next couple of days. (I have kept my questions shorter than what I may have asked in the actual interview).
You can read excerpts from the book here.
Q: Why do you think India has failed to check the abuse of amniocentesis despite outlawing the practice?
A: You probably know better than I do but from what I gather it was actually the same story in other countries. There were people who said from the very beginning that this is a problem.Technology is leading to selective elimination of female fetuses, but at the same time there were people interested in making money off the technology. And then it seems in India the population control ideology contributed to some degree. That was very front and center at the time. Today in both China and India the balancing of the sex ratio is a priority but at the time it wasn’t such a huge issue from what I gather. Also, in China there were women, particularly within the Communist Party, who raised alarm bells when one child policy was introduced that it is leading to female infanticide and, by 1982, leading to sex selective abortion. From what I read they were largely ignored.
Q: The debate over sex-selective abortion invariably runs into the game of blaming backward Asian cultures, their preference for boys. How much do you think cultural tradition is responsible for what is happening?
A: At first I was looking at this issue in connection with China where I had studied it for years and then I got interested in how this problem exists in all these other countries, in different cultures and under different government policies. Yes, they (India and China) are neighbors but beyond that they don’t have much in common. You move beyond India and China and you have countries like Azerbaijan and Albania , not much in common there beyond that people have a preference for boys. There are definitely local reasons for preferring boys. Even if you—and I am not saying that son preference was as strong in the US-- go back to my grandmother’s generation I remember growing up noticing that she favored boys over girls and not to say that sex-selection would have caught on but it exists in a lot of cultures around the world.
Q: Do you think the strong Christian aversion for abortion in the US may have trumped amniocentesis here?
A: It is hard to speculate but I did include the history about how abortion was legalized and how it was introduced in part to show that these very recent changes have had an effect on attitude towards abortion. A lot of the times you find in articles about abortion in China in the Western press the idea that the Chinese are very pragmatic, that they don’t have the same have same ethical issues surrounding the ending of life. That’s just historically not true, historically not true in India as well. The tendency is to separate the East and the West in that regard. The context in which abortion is introduced in Asia is very important. In the US it was legalized after a lot of prodding by the feminist movement and introduced as a woman’s right. And since then it has become a battleground. And even the Christian right did not take it on as a big issue. The Catholics have always been very opposed but I think it was only in the early 80s that it became so highly politicized in the US.
Q: Why do you think that female feticide does not cause the kind of global outrage that issues such as ethnic cleansing, terrorism or even female genital mutilation do? There is this story about six million missing baby girls that the Indian census talks about. That’s a huge number, six million girls going missing between 2001 and 2011.
A: It is a difficult issue for supporters of abortion rights to talk about globally. India was the place I found where people were talking about sex selection the most and were most outraged about it in the public arena. On a global level it has become very difficult for abortion rights supporters to talk about; the anti-abortion movement does not seem to have much problem talking about it but, on the other hand, I don’t know that the main issue for a lot of people is actually the disappearance of millions of girls. It’s also about outlawing abortion. If you look at the sheer numbers it is easy to get outraged but it’s a difficult thing to talk about. What language do you use to describe it? You know they are not exactly missing females because they were never born.
Now we are seeing more and more discussion around the issue at the global level. I think that’s really encouraging. I think it is something that people now see that they need to care about not only because of the sheer numbers and the fact that you have subpar fewer women being born but also because of the effects for the women who are born, the increase in sex trafficking, buying of women as brides. The countries that have major sex ratio imbalances are all developing and it’s not just first priority in China also. However, increasingly the government sees the potential risks of not doing much about sex-selection. That may change but then countries like Vietnam do not have the resources.