Why Indian parents should be allowed to choose whether to have girls

October 3, 2012
October 3, 2012

No observer of India can avoid noting that India lives simultaneously in several centuries: the modern and the ancient jostle for space, the highly technically qualified mix with the illiterate, the rich live cheek by jowl with the poor. It is all chaotic and thoroughly confusing. Like in many other countries, contradictions run wide and deep in India. Indians worship powerful goddesses but the status of women is generally deplorable and girl children are sometimes neglected.

In Indian families, as in other agrarian societies, there is a preference for boys over girls. The desire essentially boils down to economics. Boys are more valuable because they can earn more, the accumulated savings are retained in the family across generations, and are a source of old age security for the parents. Investment in boys, in other words, has a higher rate of return. Girls have lower earnings compared to boys, leave the family when they get married, and what is worse, the family has to pay a dowry to get them married.

In the bad old days, people prayed for sons and cursed their fate when they were instead gifted with daughters. Out of necessity, they accepted what the random draw of life dealt. In some areas, in some families girls had to endure neglect and lower access to nutrition, health-care and education compared to boys. In others, in extreme circumstances, infanticide of girls happened, although mercifully quite rarely.

But times have changed, and technology has brought good things to life, as the corporate slogan goes. In this case, technology has made possible in utero identification of the sex of an unborn child. It may be that this allows some parents to choose what color to paint their nursery—but that’s only for those rare cases when the families are westernized enough and rich enough to care about. For the vast majority of those who want to know, technology provides the information that enables the selective aborting of female fetuses. The predictable result is that the sex-ratio of the population in some parts of India is skewed severely: too many males relative to females.

Undisturbed nature delivers slightly fewer girls than boys at birth, the so-called secondary sex-ratio. This translates into 952 girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age group. In India, that ratio has been falling steadily. India’s census figure say that the number for girls deteriorated to 945 in 1991, and fell further to 914 in 2001. Estimates place the number of “missing girls” in India in the order of tens of millions.

The governments of some states in India have enacted laws which forbid selective abortion. Doctors are prevented from revealing information about the sex of an unborn child to the parents. Recently, to take an example, the state of Gujarat has made it mandatory for doctors who perform sonography tests on pregnant women to report the result—and other details about the family—online to the government. Technology once again to the rescue—this time for the benefit of governments which have an interest in controlling the sex-ratio of the population.

Government interference in the personal lives of people is nothing remarkable or new for India. After all, Indians endured British colonial rule until 1947 and following that, socialist governments took over which continued to enforce the rules inherited from the colonial period. So the denial of reproductive rights to women in India should not come as a surprise. This, however, is a particularly heartless move. It condemns too many girls to lives of great misery and to some to a death penalty for the crime of being born a girl.

Parental rights, one assumes, includes the freedom to decide when and how many children to have, and if possible, the freedom to choose the sex of their children. Forcing people to have children of an undesired sex is an infringement of those rights. The parents have the responsibility of bringing up their children, not the government. It can be argued that a skewed sex-ratio is not good for society. The question then is which of the two – forcing people to go through with unwanted pregnancies or a skewed sex-ratio – is less harmful to society. The answer to that is not a foregone conclusion.

The preference for boys over girls is a rational response to the prevailing social and economic conditions. Preferences change gradually, and that too only when conditions change. Government mandates—whether or not well-intentioned, rational, fair—are at best heavy hammers wielded clumsily by people who consider every problem to be a nail. Parents’ preferential desire for male children is not a technical problem and the use of technology to fulfil that desire does not make it into one. Indeed, any attempted technical solution can be circumvented: people determined enough figure out work-arounds which are usually technical.

Technology provides tools which are always neutral although economic agents using them are motivated by ends to which one may attach moral values. Those who want to use technology to limit human freedom are naturally opposed to those who use it to increase their choices.

By restricting information which may be useful for parents to make an informed choice whether or not to have a female child, the government is sacrificing the right of a child to a decent life in order to protect the “rights” of a fetus. If people cannot avoid having girls that they do not want, they will be forced to have more children to reach their desired number of sons, and to ration their resources to the detriment of girls. Rational responses to economic circumstances—poverty—cannot be averted by government mandate. Indeed it can be argued that the prevailing poverty itself has much to do with government mandates.

In the end, in the contest between the people and the government, the drive for freedom proves to be stronger and eventually overcomes the forces that seek to limit freedom. The government will fail in this case as well—as it must for the sake of the girls.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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