Maneka Gandhi’s suggestion to lift the ban on prenatal sex testing has been welcomed with open arms by the Indian Medical Association (IMA). So is sex determination making a comeback? The answer isn’t so simple.
The Women and Child Development Minister has come under fire for her remarks at the All India Regional Editors’ Conference on February 1. The IMA soon joined the minister and faced further backlash when IMA Secretary General KK Aggarwal extended support to Gandhi’s point of view.
Aggarwal said in a website post that Gandhi was only expressing “a point of view put forth by stakeholders before the ministry”. He confirmed that the IMA supports said point of view.
“[While] there is no formal proposal being considered by the ministry on this issue at this stage, this is a suggestion that needs to be debated,” he explained.
Sex determination was banned under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act of 1994. The decision was made as an effort to curb instances of female feticide along with solving the male to female ratio problem in the country — a problem that has given birth to many other cultural issues.
And once the backlash began to grow Gandhi issued a clarification on behalf of the government highlighting that sex determination should be fine as long as “each pregnancy could be registered and the sex of the foetus could be made known to the parents and if the same happens to be a female, the delivery should be tracked and recorded.”
The ministry further said, “Such a system would help in ensuring that a foetus is not aborted only because it is a female.”
The IMA and Gandhi have both highlighted that despite the 1994 legislation the sex ratio has continued to stay more or less the same. They believe that a system to prevent the pre-natal test from being misused would be better fit for the current scenario.
What doesn’t help is the fact that the PCPNDT Act itself is problematic and clashes with other laws i.e., Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971, which gives women the right to abort a child they do not want. How can a law disallowing abortion and another allowing it exist simultaneously? Moreover, tracking a woman’s pregnancy could veritably fall within the ambit of disrupting their reproductive rights.
Civil society groups on the other hand have pointed out that coming up with a registry will make little difference. What change can a record of what foetus is a girl make when the current system hasn’t been implemented to satisfaction?
The idea that an extensive monitoring system can function better seems like a pipedream to some.
Moreover, home deliveries continue to be a very real part of the picture in India. Women who do not approach the Accredited Social Health Workers (ASHAs) and anganwadi workers — a system set in place for women to register so that they may receive maternal and child health help — could shirk this system altogether.
When ASHAs cannot monitor simple home deliveries, how can another system running on similar lines monitor these cases?
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Experts have also highlighted that the private health sector — which makes up a considerable chunk of the scenario — reports neither every delivery, nor every abortion to the government. This could turn into a perfect avenue through which people could determine the sex of the child and opt for abortions if they feel like it.
Take Haryana’s example; the latest National Family Health Survey (2015-2016) has shown that only 52% of 80.4% deliveries take place in public facilities in the state. Data on other states doesn’t paint an altogether different picture.
Add to the mix the boom in ultrasound centres across the country and a very real problem starts to take shape. What may have been done in secret in the past will now have legal backing if Gandhi and the IMA have their way.
Gandhi, who ironically has no mandate to comment on the PCPNDT Act, has made problematic statements in the past but her current one is a huge blow to any progress made against female foeticide.
She ignores the harsh reality that women have all kinds of pressures dictating their reproductive decisions.