Is Maneka Gandhi just shooting her mouth off or is a policy change imminent?

According to reports by journalists who heard her speak at a conference in Jaipur on Monday, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development seems convinced that the way to deal with sex-selective abortions, which has led to a precipitous decline in the sex ratio, is to make sex-determination tests on pregnant women mandatory.

Her logic is hard to fathom. The minister has suggested, in all seriousness, that doctors should reveal the sex of the foetus to pregnant women whether they want to know it or not. She believes that by doing this, women will then be afraid to abort female foetuses as its sex will be part of public record.

“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,” Gandhi was quoted as saying. “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.”

She continued: “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.”

If it ain’t broke…

In other words, Gandhi wants to turn the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act on its head. The law prohibits the revelation of the sex of a foetus as it could lead to sex-selective abortions and it penalises doctors and ultrasound technicians who reveal the sex of the unborn child. The new proposal seems to suggest that the Union minister wants to shift this burden to the shoulders of pregnant women who will be considered criminals if they decide to abort a female foetus.

The proposal might never get through but it is worth considering the consequences if it did.

The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was the result of campaigns followed by consultations with groups that linked the use of sex-selection and sex-detection technologies to the decline in the sex ratio in India. They argued that the misuse of these technologies aided society’s preference for sons. The fact that the sex ratio had declined even in wealthy districts pointed to the widespread use of these technologies to limit the births of girls.

Paperwork pain

Doctors and ultrasound technicians were held responsible for revealing the sex of the foetus because this was a straightforward way to check rampant sex selection and the sex-selective abortions that followed.

Of course, this meant that all sonography machines had to be registered and doctors had to go through additional paperwork when dealing with pregnant women. However, this was considered a small price to pay given the enormity of the problem.

The law also kept in mind that women who were compelled to have multiple abortions before they produced a male child had no choice. They did this under circumstances where they were blamed if they produced only female children.

The medical lobby

Gandhi was quick to clarify that her remarks were just loud thinking and not the precursor to policy change. Yet, her proposal did not emerge out of thin air. It is in response to a concerted campaign by the medical community to change the Pre-Natal Conception and Diagnostic Technologies Act.

Doctors have complained not just about the paperwork but that they were being charged even for minor “clerical errors”. This argument has held sway in many cases and accounts for the low level of conviction in cases that fall under the law forbidding sex determination. Doctors have also complained about corruption by officials who demand bribes when they come to inspect papers.

In Maharashtra, doctors have been particularly vociferous in their demands for a change in the law. Not surprisingly, the first response to Gandhi’s statement came from the president of the Maharashtra branch of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Jayant Lele, who said, “The sex ratio has not dramatically improved after this law came into force. If expecting couples are tracked after sex determination shows it is a female foetus, they will be more fearful of breaking the law.”

In short, the medical community would like to be absolved of all responsibility and Gandhi’s proposal is precisely what it wants.

Fix basics first

Apart from being highly impractical, Gandhi’s proposal are unacceptably intrusive. In a country with over a billion people with millions being added every year, how will the government monitor every single birth to make sure that sex selective abortions are not taking place? Who will do it?

If even the basic job of ensuring that all pregnant women receive antenatal care so that they survive the pregnancy and deliver healthy babies is not being done how will health establishments across the country take on this additional task? And should they?

The proposal is even more perplexing when Gandhi suggests that the monitoring of every pregnant woman in the country will encourage institutional deliveries. The leap of logic she uses to arrive at this conclusion is unfathomable.

In a country where the word “inadequate” would be a gross understatement when it comes to the ratio of hospital beds to people, does the minister for Women and Child Development really think that we are ready to abolish home deliveries and compel all pregnant women to go to hospital for their deliveries?

Millions of babies are born at home, delivered by trained village dais, and survive. Yet, Gandhi believes “home deliveries pose a threat to the newborn as there might be an attempt on its life” and recommends that they be abolished.

If we have to put up with such ill-informed statements from a person tasked with ensuring the survival of women and children in India, perhaps the post of minister for Women and Child Development should be abolished.