September 5, 2011


Unnatural Selection: The story behind India's missing girls lays bare a global history of population control (MARA HVISTENDAHL, 1 August 2011, The Caravan)

F OR DR PUNEET BEDI, the intensive care unit in Apollo Hospital's maternity ward is a source of both pride and shame. The unit's technology is among the best in Delhi--among the best, for that matter, in all India. The technology is one of the reasons he chose to take his gynecology practice here. But as a specialist in high-risk births he works hard so that
babies can be born, and the fact that the unit's technology also contributes to India's skewed sex ratio at birth gnaws at him. Seven out of 10 babies born in the maternity ward, according to Bedi, are male. He delivers those boys knowing many of them are replacements for aborted girls.

He supports abortion for medical reasons, along with early-term abortion obtained after some deliberation. He performs abortions himself. For sex selection, however, he reserves a contempt bordering on fury. To have his work negated by something as trifling as sex preference--by any preference--feels like a targeted insult. "You can choose whether to be a parent," he says. "But once you choose to be a parent, you cannot choose whether it's a boy or girl, black or white, tall or short."

Bedi says sex-selective abortion has caught on in Delhi precisely because it bears the imprint of a scientific advance. "It's sanitised," he says. The fact that sex selection is a medical act, he adds, neatly divides the moral burden between two parties: parents tell themselves their doctor knows best, while doctors point to overwhelming patient demand for the procedure. "There is a complete lack of shame on behalf of the parents and doctors who do it."

A tall, broad-shouldered man with a disarmingly gentle voice, Bedi has an immaculate British accent that hints at years spent studying at King's College in London. "I am so emotionally involved in the subject," he says, his voice wavering, "that it's difficult for me to be very articulate." Sex selection, he says, is "probably the single most important issue in the next 50 years that this country and China are going to face. If you're going to wipe out 20 percent of your population, nature is not going to sit by and watch." But hospitals have little incentive to do anything about the problem, he adds, because maternity wards bring in substantial business. At Apollo, a deluxe delivery suite outfitted with a bathtub, track lighting, a flat screen television and a large window looking out onto landscaped grounds runs to 9000 a night. Although India outlawed foetal sex determination and sex-selective abortion in 1994, the law is poorly enforced, and as sex selection is an easy procedure in high demand, doctors continue to openly perform it. "Almost a third of Indian gynecologists' income comes from abortion," Bedi tells me. "Among those who do female foeticide, 90 percent comes from abortion. Who the hell is going to stop it?" He says he makes less money than many Delhi gynecologists simply because he refuses to abort female foetuses. Some of his patients, he says, are "extremely disappointed when I do ultrasounds. They think it's just a waste of time and money if you don't even know whether it's a boy or a girl."

Indeed, some of India's top physicians help patients scan for foetal sex. A notorious case in Delhi is that of Mangala Telang, a Harvard-educated physician who is something like a gynecologist to the stars. Telang's patients range from wealthy foreigners--both the American and British embassies recommend her to citizens living in Delhi--to Bollywood glitterati. In 2007 a pregnant British reporter of South Asian descent sent undercover by the BBC's Asian Network caught Telang ordering an ultrasound scan for sex determination and assuring the reporter she could recommend an abortionist if the foetus turned out to be female. (Bedi appears in the segment, commenting dryly: "I'm not surprised at all.") After the show aired, the health ministry suspended Telang's licence, but at the time of my visit to Delhi she was practising again. The BBC reporter, moreover, found three other doctors in South Delhi willing to identify the sex of her baby. One didn't even bother to mention that sex selection was illegal--and then, smelling British money, charged the reporter twice the going rate. "When you confront the medical profession, there is a cowardly refusal to accept blame," Bedi tells me. "They say, 'We are doctors; it's a noble profession.' This is bull[****]." Later he adds: "When it comes to issues like ethics and morality you can have an opinion, but there is a line which you do not cross. Everybody who does it knows it's unethical. It's a mass medical crime."

To this day, in India and elsewhere, activists often point to tradition as the cause of sex-selective abortion. Instead of challenging Asia's history of population control or bringing entrenched interest groups like the medical lobby to task, these activists launch awareness campaigns directed at changing prejudices and societal mores. Positive reinforcement is a common theme in such campaigns. Daughters are portrayed as loving, intelligent, capable, fun--everything a parent could want in a child. In India, there is the Save the Daughter Campaign, Shakti--An Initiative to Empower the Girl Child, the 50 Million Missing Campaign. There is even a "motorbike campaign against female foeticide", which involves politicians touring the country on motor scooters to preach the merits of having girls. Organisations lead focus groups in remote villages. They hire television writers to pen soap operas showing women rejoicing over the birth of daughters. They enlist Bollywood stars to film public service announcements. They sponsor playwrights and hold art contests and develop school curricula. An awareness campaign was the reason well-known Indian designers and models took time out from the shows during Delhi's 2009 Fashion Week to pose with children plucked off the street. "Through fashion," one celebrity told Thaindian News, "we want to show that young icons of India are stepping forth to support the unborn girl child." Even Apollo Hospital runs an awareness campaign staffed by employee volunteers at the hospital's branch in Punjab. As their coworkers stay back to help well-off urbanites abort girls, the volunteers disperse throughout poor villages to preach the merits of daughters.

To Bedi, this approach is infuriating. "If people had a son simply because they want a son, girls would have disappeared from this country one thousand years ago," he says. The campaigns, he says, are an attempt to pawn off modern-day oppression on intransigent cultural mores. He believes it is time for India to start asking hard questions. What if the indiscriminate elimination of girls is the result of subterfuge--of decisions made not by individual parents thinking only of themselves but by those responding to some larger force? And if the Indian and US governments and leading Western organisations played a role in that subterfuge?

Subterfuge? How could population controllers be any more open about their intent?

Posted by at September 5, 2011 7:53 AM

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