14 November 2016

Imbalanced Gender: India's Supreme Court Addresses Sex-Selective Abortion, Again

Several years ago I posed here and here about the last-minute success of Advocate Bedi Tanu in blocking the forced abortion of the child of a mentally disabled rape victim. After losing before the High Court of the mother's State, Advocate Bedi succeeded in getting a stay from the Supreme Court of India less than eight hours before the procedure was to be performed.

The facts of the earlier case were unusual. Of far greater significance than preventing a single unwanted abortion is the stunning use of abortion in India as a tool of sex selection. Indeed, Regent University School of Law hosted a symposium on "Endangered Gender" a few years back. You can read my posts about it here and here,

Sex-selective abortion is simply the combination of two reasonably accessible means of technology--sonograms and abortion--to produce an evil result, that is, the systematic elimination of females from the nation of India. While the practice of honor killings outrage Westerners, the effects of such socially sanctioned murders of young women pale in significance to the rampant destruction of the millions of preborn persons of the same sex.

The demographic effects of sex-selective abortions are startling. In the State of Punjab, for example, in 2013 there were only 846 girls born for every 1000 boys. The medium- and long-term effects of such an imbalance hardly need to be described. One should not consider Punjab an outlier but rather as a trend-setter: in India as a whole there were 933 girls born per 1000 boys in 2011.

In response, the Government of India enacted the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act in 1994 that was intended to restrain and even criminalize the misuse of ultrasound machines for sex determination tests. As the statistics in the preceding paragraph demonstrate, however, the PCPNDT Act has failed.

To bring pressure on the governments of India's States to enforce the PCPNDT, noted public interest advocate Colin Gonsalves brought an action in the Supreme Court of India, which issued its decision a few days ago. You can read Robin Ratnakar David's summary here. This is not the first time the Court has weighed in on the effective non-enforcement of the PCPNDT so it remains to be seen whether the directives issued in this case will have any meaningful effect.

When all is said and done (or undone, as the case may be) one is left wondering about the legitimacy of prohibiting sex-selective abortion. Pragmatically, of course, maintaining a balance of female:male births is wise for any national polity. After all, young males without the socializing effects of marriage and family are a notoriously problematic group. Yet, if abortion is legal for "no reason," why should abortion for one particular reason be prohibited? In other words, if abortion is justified as an instance of personal autonomy, as an example of a human right, why should there be any limit other than collision with another's right? Why should mere social policy, no matter how prudent, limit the exercise of a fundamental right?

Oh well, no one ever said that political life, especially political life in a democracy, is led by reason. One can simply be grateful for the Court's decision and pray that it will work to preserve the lives of the youngest of India's women.

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