Leading doctors of the Indian medical fraternity are averse to the idea floated by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi about making sex-determination tests mandatory for pregnant women and argue that it will not stop sex-selective abortions, but rather take away a woman’s right to abortion. Some say the proposal is part of a long-standing campaign of a doctors’ lobby that wants to absolve itself from responsibilities in abortion cases.
Currently, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act disallows revealing the sex of a foetus to its parents in order to curb sex-selective abortions. It carries penalties for doctors and ultrasound technicians who are found to be flouting the rules.
“This proposal, in its current form, should not be implemented. India is not a country where you can track millions of pregnancies. It is more advisable to have a stricter stand on technicians or doctors who break the rules. We have a good law in place. We should implement it better,” said a senior office-bearer of the Indian Medical Association on the condition of anonymity.
Later, the IMA released a statement supporting the need to consider the minister’s viewpoint: “Recent statements by Smt Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Minister, indicate that a 20-year-old ban on fetal sex determination may be lifted. She referred to a point of view put forth by stakeholders before the Ministry that if each pregnancy could be registered and the sex of the fetus could be made known to the parents and if the same happens to be a female, the delivery should be tracked and recorded. However, 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. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) supports this viewpoint.”
Doctors are of the opinion that it will put the burden on the pregnant mother and take away a woman’s right to abortion. “It will shift the burden from doctors and technicians to the mother. Furthermore, it goes against a woman’s right to abortion as a woman will be deemed to be a criminal in case she decides to abort a female foetus. If you reveal the sex to the mother, in our patriarchal society she would, in most cases, be forced to abort the child. You can imagine what all accompanies such cases… physical and mental abuse, trauma and more,” said Dr Manushee Ketkar, a leading Delhi-based gynaecologist.
Maneka Gandhi had said at a meeting in Jaipur recently that “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. Rather, why not reverse the strategy? The moment a woman gets pregnant, we should find out the gender of the child, tell the mother about it, and immediately register it in public records. Then we can track which pregnancies are carried to full term.”
“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,” she added.
The proposal may not see the light of the day ever. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that “such a policy takes away a woman’s rights. We are not empowering the woman like this. We are rather making her life more difficult. The consequences, if it is implemented, will be grave,” Dr Ketkar said.
Gandhi was quick to release a clarification the next day saying that she had just floated an idea and it was not a policy proposal. But some argue that it was part of a strenuous campaign by a certain doctors’ lobby to do away with the PCPNDT Act.
“The proposal did not emerge out of thin air. They are testing the waters to see what kind of response emerges. It is all part of a long-standing movement of a certain lobby that wants the PCPNDT Act changed or scrapped. The medical fraternity, by and large, wants to wash its hands of any responsibility and Gandhi’s proposal is what they want,” she added.
It is also very difficult to track whether the pregnancies go through and assess genuine miscarriages from sex-selective abortions. “The government authorities have not been able to crack down on technicians and doctors who help in female foeticide and reveal the sex of the child against law. How can it possibly track millions of pregnancies? It is not feasible in a country like ours. The minister should have discussed it with all the stakeholders before even announcing an idea like this. This is a very negative move and should not go through,” said Dr Ajay Lekhi, president of the Delhi Medical Association.