Union Woman and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi recently suggested that child sex determination during pregnancy be made compulsory, the gender of the child registered right from that moment, and the birth be tracked. Doing so, according to her, would check female foeticide.
- Maneka Gandhi’s idea to legalise pre-natal sex determination has predictably attracted controversy and flak because of her failure to provide a cogent framework under which this proposed 180-degree turn in established law can succeed. It is a well-known fact that prenatal sex determination has often resulted in female foeticide.
But, why she said so?
- Since it is really not feasible to go around trying to catch every ultrasound technician for revealing the foetal gender to parents in violation of the PCPNDT Act, she said, reversing this strategy could help prevent female foeticide.
- According to this strategy, the moment a woman gets pregnant, the gender of the child should be found out and the mother should be informed about it. And immediately this should be registered in public records and then the government can track which pregnancies are carried to full term.
- Further, since the gender is already known, and given the law, families would be compelled to go through with the pregnancy especially when the foetus is female.
India is among the countries with the worst child sex ratios in the world. The 2011 Census showed that the child sex ratio has dipped from 927 girls in 2001 to 919 girls in 2011. Child sex ratio shows the number of girls per 1,000 boys between the ages 0-6.
- The data proves that India has an abysmal record when it comes to reining in the cases of female foeticide.
- Latest Census numbers also cast a shadow on the adequacy of measures which are helping in educating people to not prefer sons over daughters.
What does the law say about sex determination?
The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003, commonly called PC-PNDT Act, makes it illegal to determine the sex of the unborn child or even use sex-selection technologies.
- The law first came into force in 1996 as the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994, in response to the falling sex ratio and fears that ultrasound technologies were being used to determine the sex of the foetus.
- The law was amended in 2003 to bring the technique of preconception sex selection within the ambit of the Act – essentially, banning practices where medical practitioners try to influence the sex of the child before conception by using techniques such as sperm sorting (where a sperm cell is specifically chosen because of its sex chromosome).
- The law as it stands not only prohibits determination and disclosure of the sex of the foetus but also bans advertisements related to preconception and prenatal determination of sex.
What are the provisions of the Act?
According to the Act, ultrasound clinics, genetic counselling centres and genetic laboratories cannot be used for conducting pre-natal diagnostic techniques except for detecting abnormalities such as chromosomal abnormalities, genetic metabolic diseases, sex-linked genetic diseases and congenital anomalies.
- The Act makes it mandatory for all ultrasound facilities to be registered and for medical practitioners to maintain records of every scan done on pregnant women.
Performance of this Act:
Since 2000, both high courts and the Supreme Court have delivered a series of judgments, taking a serious view of sex-selective practices by the medical fraternity and the connection it may have with skewed sex ratios.
- In September 2001, following a public interest litigation the Supreme Court passed an order for strict implementation of the Act and reiterated it again in September 2003.
- However, the rate of conviction has been poor. From 2003 to December 2014, only 206 doctors had been convicted by courts, of which Maharashtra had the highest number at 96, followed by Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana.
- At least 15 states and four union territories had zero convictions all these years.
What’s the problem then?
According to experts, the problem isn’t with the Act but with its implementation. State advisory committees that help in implementing the Act do not meet regularly. Besides, there is poor monitoring of ultrasound clinics. Such clinics are required to maintain records of the scans they conduct but the violators are often let off with a fine.
Arguments against the suggestion made by Maneka Gandhi:
Activists and experts have roundly opposed the idea, saying it will only make female foeticide more rampant. In a country as vast and as corrupt as ours, the suggestion, if practiced, will be counter-productive and riddled with holes.
- It would not be feasible to monitor 29 million pregnancies annually.
- Experts say that the idea of compulsory sex determination will only push women to unsafe abortions. There will be greater pressure on the pregnant woman from her family if they find out early on that her second or third child is a girl.
- Experts also say that no test can be made mandatory in a democracy such as India. Besides, they say, the proposal is an encroachment on a woman’s reproductive rights and shifts the burden on the woman by criminalising her.
- And also, by making sex-determination compulsory, ‘diagnostic centres’ which perform these services will mushroom out of control. They will be legal and hence thrive better. And how will tracking the mother help at all?
- Even though Maneka’s suggestion on paper sounds ingenious at the first instance, the government needs to improve the existing system which is falling apart.
- The only immediate deterrence against continuous promotion of sex selection by unethical medical professionals and agents is the stricter implementation of the law.
With such laws, the government should not over-legislate and medicalise the womb but empower women, raise awareness in society and incentivise the girl child – make schemes like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Ladli, and Sukanya Samriddhi Account work better. The country will welcome incentives for girls.