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There was a recent move in the Maharashtra Assembly which did not go down well with anti-abortionists. The state was planning to treat female foeticide as murder, and book culprits under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). On the face of it, it appeared a welcome step towards addressing the skewed sex ratio issue. But delve a bit deep, and the contours of the debate change – for the issue is also a lot about semantics and definitions.

Fauzia Khan, minister of state for public health, announced in the legislative council that the public health department had asked its law and judiciary counterpart for opinion on whether Section 302 (of the IPC) could be applied against those involved in sex determination tests.

The government was said to be taking appropriate measures to curb the falling sex ratio and punish errant sonography centres and radiologists involved in sex determination. Portable sonography would only be allowed in case of an emergency with the permission of the government and that too only at hospitals, not at a stand-alone centre.

It did sound a very proactive measure. After all, sex-selective abortions (SSAs) are a major social malaise. Earlier this year, had come the demographic shocker when the provisional results of the 2011 census showed that the child gender ratio stood at 914 girls (under the age of six) for every 1,000 boys. This was the lowest since Independence, and had declined drastically from a high of 976 girls in the 1961 census. Yet, abortion rights activists had every reason to see the Maharashtra move as disturbing and detrimental to women’s rights.

Why? First, abortion should not be referred to as ‘foeticide’, which has anti-abortion implications. All women have the right to decide when and whether to give birth to children. Making sex-selective abortions a murder charge only increases
incidence of illegal abortions and also makes access to safe abortion difficult for women who already do not have many choices regarding their own reproductive rights.

Abortion has been legal in India under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act since 1971. However, in recent years, concerns over SSAs have led to unofficial restrictions for all women. Despite the MTP Act, there are more illegal abortions being conducted than legal ones. Most private formal abortion providers are not registered. While abortions are conducted in the first trimester, women acknowledge the pressure to undergo SSAs.

Studies have shown that there is little awareness that abortion is legal, whereas messages and images about SSAs receive wide publicity. Campaigns have been mobilised in the name of women’s rights calling for protection of the “the unborn girl child”—language that eerily echoes that of the anti-abortion movement. The MTP Act exists to promote a right and expand access (to safe abortion) while the Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex selection (PCPNDT) Act aims to prevent discrimination (against females). Both attempt to regulate the use of appropriate technologies and restrict misuse, but MTP is purely an access to safe and legal abortion and PCPNDT is about banning use of medical phonology for sex selection.

In rural India, 50 per cent of women who want to have an abortion are unable to find local services. Even when a skilled abortion technician is available, services are often denied because doctors fear being accused of performing SSAs. When a woman comes in wanting a second trimester abortion for whatever reason, she’s often seen as guilty of asking to terminate the pregnancy for sex-selection reasons—and there’s no way of proving otherwise.

The campaign against declining sex ratio has been located within a ‘female foeticide’ and ‘violence against women’ paradigm. This unconsciously strengthens the logic that declining sex ratio is linked with violence against ‘individual’ women, and these individual women are eliminated through female ‘foeticide’ and ‘abortion’ is the key act through which this happens. There is constant use of the expressions ‘female foeticide’ and ‘save the girl child’ giving unnecessary personhood to a foetus in high visibility campaigns.

It is important to remember that those who want to use abortion for elimination of the female foetus have to first determine the sex of the child. Rightly, it is this process of pre-natal selection which is a crime, and it is regulated and monitored through the PCPNDT Act.

But there is also a dire need to be a bit more sensitive and responsible in the usage of terms. Terms like ‘foeticide’, ‘killing’ and ‘murder’ are avoidable since they focus on negative emotions of fear and violence, and not at the root cause, which is sexual discrimination. Language that portrays girls as objects of pity and devalues them should be done away with.

The woman is not responsible for the sex of the child, it is man. Yet, it is the woman who has to bear the brunt of both the malaise as well as the gory and gruesome campaigns. If one has to act correct, one must learn to speak correct too – starting with sparing use of ‘foeticide’.

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