Amid Arrests of Medical Staff, Church in India Decries Rampant Female Feticide

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India is reiterating ‘the value and dignity of human life’ in light of shocking media reports.

Young women hold models of unborn babies as part of a public pro-life exhibition of V4L (We for Life), an initiative of a Catholic lay group from Kerala that spreads awareness against abortion, in New Delhi.
Young women hold models of unborn babies as part of a public pro-life exhibition of V4L (We for Life), an initiative of a Catholic lay group from Kerala that spreads awareness against abortion, in New Delhi. (photo: 2014 photo by Anto Akkara)

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has again condemned the widespread practice of female feticide, contravening legislation banning sex-determination tests and selective abortions that are carried out clandestinely, including sometimes in hospitals.

The CBCI reaction came in the context of shocking recent media reports, including the case of a doctor and his lab technician, who were arrested as part of a probe into sex-selective feticides for allegedly performing more than 900 illegal abortions, and a hospital that was closed after a female baby was found in its waste bin.

“We are shocked by the [news] reports that came out,” Bishop Thomas mar Anthonios of Gurgaon, chairman of the CBCI’s Commission for Women, told the Register Jan. 2.

“The Catholic Church strongly condemns the growing menace of female feticide in Indian society. In spite of prohibition of sexual determination of fetuses by law, recent media reports show that the rate of female feticide is rampant,” the commission said in a Jan. 1 statement.

“It is alarming that the sex of the aborted fetus is found to be female! It shows how the society is discriminating female children and women against their right to equal dignity and status guaranteed by the law of the country,” the CBCI statement said. 

Consequently, the commission urged the government “to adopt more stringent measures to prevent such criminal acts.”

Although both recent incidents were reported from southern Karnataka state, Bishop Anthonios, who is the head of the Syro-Malankara Rite Church in the Delhi region, said that the situation is even worse in “the northern states of the country.”

According to a 2021 study published by The Lancet, “Half of the world’s missing female births occur in India, due to sex-selective abortion. 13.5 million female births were missing during the three decades of observation (1987-2016).” 

Why It Happens

“Certain deep-rooted superstitious beliefs existing in some parts of the country seem to be the main reason for this evil practice. Some religious as well as economic concerns play a role in it,” the CBCI noted in its Jan. 1 statement. 

Several studies have highlighted India’s deep-rooted gender prejudice against girls and the associated preference for boys, with many Hindus and Sikhs believing that unless there is a son to perform last rites, the parents’ souls will not get liberation. 

Alongside of such religious beliefs, this anti-girl attitude is aggravated by demands for exorbitant dowries for the marriage of women, which generate a dread that the birth of girls will constitute an unwanted future financial burden.

“Much of the discrimination is to do with cultural beliefs and social norms,” noted an analysis titled “Indian Bioethics: The Issue of Female Foeticide and Infanticide — a Sikh Perspective.”

The deadly consequences of this gender bias against girls persist after they are born. A 2018 Lancet study indicated that gender bias is responsible for the deaths of more than 200,000 girls under the age of 5 each year in India. 

“People should be made aware of the value and dignity of human life and the right of the fetus as a human person to exist and develop in the womb of its mother as well as in the family and society. … The Church, on its part, will take steps to motivate the society and create awareness to protect human life from inception,” the CBCI said.

Catholic Medical Perspectives 

“The situation is very challenging. Many know that our [Church] hospitals will not perform abortion. But they come to us for treatment of bleeding,” Daughters of Mary Sister Lilly Mathew, a medical doctor who works in a Catholic hospital in northern Punjab state bordering Pakistan, told the Register.

“Despite all the laws, women are under pressure to find out the sex of the fetus. If it is female, they are made to use abortion tablets and other methods. Several of them come bleeding. with the fetus already having lost heartbeat,” said the nun.

“Women who have two girls are under more pressure,” added the gynecologist-nun.

This grim reality is reflected by reports like a 2011 study of births at a large hospital in Delhi, which reported a dramatic decline in female births among families that already had daughters. “Overall, there were 806 girls to 1,000 boys,” the study found. “The sex-ratio was 720∶1000 if there was one previous girl and 178∶1000 if there were two previous girls.” According to the researchers, “Evidence from the second children clearly shows the sex-ratio is being manipulated by human interventions.”

Praising the arrest of the doctor and his associate for 900 female feticides in Karnataka, Sister Anne Joyce, a gynecologist in St. Mary’s Hospital at Salem in southern Tamil Nadu, told the Register that  “the government has to be stricter and give clear warning to those who indulge in it.”

In Tamil Nadu, where female infanticides are also common, the nun said, the government put up “cradles of mercy” in government hospitals and offices to receive unwanted female babies. 

“Over the years, the droppings [of children in the cradles] have gone down a lot but the problem is still there. When pregnant women come to us, we try to enlighten them against this socially approved evil,” Sister Anne said. 

Raising Awareness

The Hindu, a national English daily, confirmed in a 2019 report that female feticide and infanticide continues to occur in Tamil Nadu, despite laws banning the practice.

“Enactment of laws will not end this social malaise in India. Raising awareness about this killer attitude against the girl child is the most crucial solution,” Sunny Kattukaran, who heads the lay-led V4L (We for Life) campaign, told the Register.

And while the Catholic Church in India has been observing the Sept. 8 feast of the birthday of Mary, Mother of God, as the “Day of the Girl Child” since 1997, Kattukaran said the Church’s efforts need to be augmented. Efforts undertaken by his lay team include the distribution of tiny models of unborn babies and posters explaining the evils of abortion that can be displayed during pro-life public demonstrations. 

Said the ardent pro-lifer, “We conduct awareness programs across the country, especially at schools of girls, as touching their mindsets is very crucial in this effort.”