The Tribune, Chandigarh,25 May 2007
Killing unborn daughter
Govt should regulate technology
by Rajesh Kochhar
Through a blatant abuse of technology, India is now engaged in systematic annihilation of unborn girls with Punjab and Haryana as the worst offenders.
According to the 2001 census, of the 500-odd districts in India, Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib has the lowest child sex-ratio, that is a mere 727 girls in the age group 0-6 years per 1,000 boys. The bottom 10 districts come from Punjab or Haryana, while all 17 Punjab districts figure in the last 34.
India has a long tradition of murderous bias against the girl child. Thus in 1911, Punjab had only 780 females per 1,000 males as against the national average of 964.
Earlier, female infanticide was restricted to certain caste groups in some parts of India, but female foeticide is now cutting across caste and geographical boundaries.
In the past, there might have been some remorse or sense of guilt in murdering a baby after birth, but technology-assisted murder before birth is seen as no more than a procedure. Technology can be as effective in killing the conscience as in killing human beings.
In 1971 as part of its family planning programme, the Indian government bestowed legal status and social sanction on abortion, permitting hospitals to determine and disclose the sex of the foetus.
It soon became clear that for people at large a small family meant a girl-free family, and only female foetuses were aborted.
Accordingly, the arrangement was discontinued in 1978, but now private players were ready to fill the vacuum. India’s first commercial sex-determination clinic opened in Amritsar early 1979. The era of the ethic-less, greed-driven medico had begun.
The development in the West of the ultrasound imaging technique, though primarily meant for detecting genetic disorders, provided a convenient and non-invasive way of sex-determination. In 1990 the American General Electric Medical Systems (GEMS) set up an ultrasound machine production unit in Bangalore in collaboration with Wipro.
In 1996, the government banned the use of ultrasound for determining the sex of the foetus, but the 2001 census data showed that the law had been ineffective.
Finally, responding to public interest litigation, the Supreme Court issued orders for overhauling the earlier Act and ensuring its enforcement.
The modified law, which came into effect in 2003, absolves the pregnant woman of any crime, but seeks to punish the husband or relatives who pressurise the woman. It asks the clinics to maintain proper records and specifically bans sex determination and sex-selective abortion.
Punjab has initiated effective measures to destigmatise itself. A particularly successful effort has been what has come to be recognised the country over as the Nawanshahr model.
It has restored natural sex ratio through a combination of means: monitoring each pregnancy, compilation of computerised databases, involvement of non-governmental organisations, innovative scheme of incentives and disincentives, appeal to the collective social consciousness, personal zeal of the Deputy Commissioner and, above all, the real threat of severe punishment for law-breakers.
Similar success has attended the efforts in Hyderabad city. Laudatory as these initiatives are, they are limited by the fact that they are personality-driven rather than systemic.
Female foeticide is a crime that is socially acceptable. Criminals are not social riff-raff, but respectable members of society whose education, affluence, social and political connectivity and trade unionism make it difficult, if not impossible, to touch them.
Probably only a handful of doctors are indulging in these criminal activities, but the fact remains that there is no sense of outrage at their conduct in their more scrupulous colleagues.
The administration has a difficult task on hand. Sex determinators and foetus exterminators are merrily doing their work, while government officials and social activists have to be on high alert all the time.
The extant laws are based on the assumption that ultrasound technology is sacrosanct and only administrative forces can be marshaled to combat its misuse. This assumption is not valid.
Ultrasound, no doubt, is a powerful diagnostic tool in the hands of a doctor. It is nobody’s case that the technology be banned because it is being misused. At the same time its wide applicability should not be used to condone or divert attention from its abuse as a murder weapon.
It is quite obvious that abortion economy is driving the ultrasound industry in India. The mega-market GE and other companies are targeting in India and China is the sex-determination market and not the health care market. There is need to make a distinction between the two.
A high-powered commission comprising medical scientists and other experts should ascertain India’s need of ultrasound machinery for genuine purposes and suggest steps for regulating and even controlling the machinery’s technical specifications, manufacture and installation.
Sufficiently high minimum academic and professional qualifications should be laid down for opening an ultrasound clinic. It can even be mandated that stand-alone clinics will not be permitted and that they must necessarily be part of a hospital or a poly-clinic.
There is need to continually assess the genuine requirement for and the economics of ultrasound and other medical technologies, especially because rapid technological developments can quickly overtake legal and administrative measures.
The writer is a Professor of Pharmaceutical Heritage, Niper, Mohali