Church Spearheads Fight Against Sex-Selective Abortions

NEW DELHI, India — Amid a worsening female feticide situation, the Catholic Church in India is mobilizing to join the fight against the gender prejudice that lies at the root of rampant sex-selective abortions.

“This is very, very saddening,” Bishop John Baptist Thakur of Muzzafarpur, chairman of Catholic Bishops Conference of India's Commission for Women, said July 28. “We are trying to involve all our institutions in an effective campaign to counter this.”

Bishop Thakur made his comments following the release of a pioneering study by a Christian health forum on the skewed male-female sex ratio among children in the Indian capital of New Delhi that has resulted from sex-selective abortions in India.

In families that had a third child after two girls, there were only 219 girls per 1,000 boys, according to the study released in mid-July by the Christian Medical Association of India. Similarly, when a family's first child was a girl, there were only 558 girls for 1,000 boys among subsequent births, noted the study after scrutinizing 370,000 birth records in the capital's eight leading hospitals over a 10-year period.

“Our study shows that parents are deliberately aborting female fetuses. Otherwise, there cannot be such a skewed sex ratio among children,” said Dr. Joe Verghese, coordinator of the medical association's Policy Advocacy & Research Group.

Verghese said that his group decided to carry out the in-depth study of the female feticide after the 2001 national census found alarming trends in the sex ratio, with fewer than 800 girls per 1,000 boys below 6 years old documented in several areas. This further reinforced an existing trend in India, where the sex ratio for the population has declined from 970 women per 1,000 men in 1970 to 929 women per 1,000 men in 2001.

Cultural Prejudice

According to Bishop Thakur, whose diocese is located in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, female feticide is “a serious concern and the Church will strengthen its efforts to ‘conscientize’ the people to overcome the strong gender prejudice.”

“It is a fact that many families do not celebrate the birth of a girl child. This mindset has to be changed,” added Bishop Thakur.

According to Hindu tradition, a father cannot attain moksha (salvation) unless he has a son to perform his last rites. This religious sanction — which renders daughters less desirable than boys — also contributed to India's dowry system, which makes daughters a substantial economic liability for families.

Recent media reports showed that the prejudice against girls is so deep-rooted that Indian doctors working abroad have reported instances of Indian couples settled in Western countries traveling back to India to obtain sex-selective abortions, which are difficult to obtain elsewhere.

And while the Indian government officially has banned sex determination tests on unborn children, they are carried out illegally even in villages due to the powerful social prejudices against girl babies.

Along with cultural and social prejudices against girls, India's two-child population control policy has played a critical role in “worsening the female feticide scenario,” said Verghese.

“If the first child is a girl, the parents are desperate to ensure that the second child is a boy,” he said. “So, they go for sex determination test and abort the fetus if it is a girl.”

Under the population control policy, the federal government limits child education benefits to a family's first two children. Six Indian states have also enacted legislation that bans those with more than two children from contesting village and municipal elections, and denies housing loans, government jobs and even admission to government educational institutions to large families.

“Certainly, there is a definite link between the two-child norm and the growing number of female feticides,” said Sister Lilly Francis Poovelil, executive secretary of the Indian bishops’ Commission for Women.

“The girl child now has become God's endangered gift,” added Sister Poovelil. “We need to adopt a multi-pronged strategy and involve every section of society to change this mindset.”

In a nation of over 1 billion people, the 16-million strong Catholic Church in India runs more than 20,000 educational institutions educating more than 5 million students.

“It is not enough we concentrate on the children. We will try to reach out to their parents and others,” said Sister Poovelil.

The growing concern over female feticide was evident last month when the Delhi Medical Association, a forum of 10,000 doctors in the Indian capital, urged the medical community to avoid abortions beyond 12 weeks after conception.

It was found that 95% of abortions carried out after 12 weeks were sex-selective, Delhi Medical Association president Dr. K.K. Aggarwal said July 11.

“In the present situation, pregnancy can be detected in five to seven weeks,” Aggarwal said. “If the couple approaches a gynecologist for abortion after 12 weeks, it is a clear case of sex-selective abortion.”

Alarmed by the Christian medical forum's report, India's National Commission for Women has called for stringent laws to curb the killings. Currently, there are almost no restrictions on abortions in India, which legalized the practice in 1971.

The National Commission for Women, the watchdog group for women's rights, has called for amendments and strict punishments under the existing law that prohibits sex-selective abortions, and is preparing additional amendments intended to elminate such abortions.

The commission has also launched a massive awareness campaign with the blunt slogan “Stop female feticide.”

Mary's Help

Since the Indian bishops’ conference decided in 1997 to dedicate Sept. 8, the feast of the Birth of Mary, as the “day of the girl child,” the Church has steadily increased its programs to counter the cultural preference for sons.

Bishop Thakur said that progress is being made, pointing to roadside ads bearing slogans like “To kill a girl in the womb is a crime.” The ads have started appearing even in remote places in his home state of Bihar, one of India's most underdeveloped regions.

“This is a positive development,” he said. “We should strengthen this campaign to change the biased attitude to girl children.”

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.