A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


India seeks to reduce gender-based abortions, infanticides

India plans to implement a pregnancy registry to help reduce gender-based abortions and infanticides, the BBC World Service reported this morning. You can read the story at Reuters India.

Listening to the story on the radio this morning, I have to admit that the notion of government registered pregnancies struck me as pretty draconian. But apparently previous laws banning sex determination did not lower the abortion and infanticide of girls as much as was hoped. The government said that some 10 million girls have been aborted or killed by their parents in the past 20 years.

While some say pregnancy registration is unrealistic, the measure has invigorated discussions about the nation's attitudes toward girls, infant mortality and pre- and post-natal care for poor and rural women. And certainly nothing but good can come from such discussions.


Commenting Guidelines

A little known fact is that this happened a lot in ancient Rome. The father really determined whether the child lived or not. The female child faced infinitely more peril.China is a definite disgrace especially in this day and age. Females are not as well disregarded in many countries. I'm not sure whether they approach China in the number or practice of female infanticide.I wonder how many right to life executives who are making money in China, a huge market for American corporations, are protesting this truly draconian patriarchal practice.

The article doesn't mention the growing imbalance in the ratio of women to men in India as a result, at least in part, of gender-selective abortions. I read somewhere that the ratio is currently about 925 woman to 1,000 men and that by 2020 or 2025 there will be approximately 25 million "surplus" men in India. I'm not a sociologist, so I won't speculate about the specific long-term societal effects of such an imbalance, but I don't think they'll be beneficial.

I don't know what the boy/girl ratio is in India, but my guess is that China, where the boy/girl ratio has risen from about 108/100 to 120/100 in a generation, is not lost on Indian officials.I watch India with great interest. I've read several stories about energetic and intelligent women in towns and villages who, out of apparently nothing, form banks that issue micro-loans, form health networks, and provide educational and job training. And many women have achieved political influence, including Ms. Chowdhury, who is spearheading the current pregnancy registry.There seems to be such spirit there. And such inspiration!

Gary Becker and Richard Posner considered this topic recently (in their archives at February 12, 2007).Posners view of the social consequences: The result (of a high male/female ratio) is to raise the average age of marriage for men and reduce it for women, reduce the percentage of married men and increase the percentage of married women, reduce promiscuity by increasing women's bargaining power, and possibly increase male emigration and female immigration. None of which they find unduly alarming.Its a rather cold-blooded and amoral analysis. But Becker does make the point that its odd that American medical organizations oppose abortion for sex selection purposes while accepting it for almost any other frivolous reason.What is so different about sex-selected abortions that would lead the ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) with its over 51,000 members who provide health care to women to oppose abortions to satisfy parental desires for additional boys or girls while supporting the general right to abortion?

I should add that I'm very happy the ACOG does oppose the practice. It's probably too optimistic to see this as leading to the expansion of their list of unacceptable reasons for abortion.

When women are valued prospective parents don't select against gender. I don't know if there are studies, but everything I have read suggests that couples who try to stack the deck in the U.S. and European countries with respect to gender do so either to get one of what they don't have, or to have a daughter in order to make the mother happy. I don't condone this practice even when it doesn't involve abortion, but this is simply to say that selecting against females as an entire group whether through fertility treatment or abortion is a symptom of inferior social status of women, and it will change when women's status is elevated. Here's a link to an article about India. is striking is that the rate of male to female births varies dramatically by region. Amartya Sen has written articles about the differences between these regions and they are almost always based on how women are valued, whether they are educated, have economic opportunities, and so on. Abortion for the purpose of sex selection has been illegal in India for many years but interdiction has had absolutely no effect on its rate.

Patrick and Barbara--Thanks for the links, which contain interesting info. My initial thought was that a skewed ratio could lead to more violence against women. The article Barbara linked to supports that possibility. It also makes the point that women would likely be forced or pressured to marry at a younger age, thereby reducing educational opportunities for women.My wife and I were discussing the issue, and she mentioned another possibility, i.e., that marital restrictions might have to be relaxed to allow polygamy--with women in control of who they pick for multiple husbands. By the look on her face, she seemed to be enjoying the empowerment possibility of such a system. She was just kidding, however. (At least I hope so.)

Patrick, you may feel that Posner et al's analysis is amoral and cold--and I agree that their language supports that conclusion--but the fact that they recognize that slaughtering females through abortion and infanticide will result in social ills is a good thing, no?Barbara, my thanks, too, for the link. I want to be careful not to imply that female infanticide is rampant across the country. Women in India have done tremendous things to improve and educate themselves, and I see this move in line with that trend.

Jean,My reading of the Becker-Posner entries is that they are relatively complacent about the practice. Its not a problem in the West, they say, and in poorer countries the problem is self-correcting. As girls become scarcer, they become more valuable, and eventually, in their view, the male-female ratio will return to approximately 1:1. Hence, their complacency and their conclusion that there is no need for political or legal measures to halt the practice. Economics may point to that conclusion but, in my view, only in conjunction with a naive sociology.Becker does point out the inconsistency in opposing abortion for sex-selection purposes while allowing it for almost any other reason. But his implication (he doesnt say this explicitly) seems to be that doctors should drop their opposition to abortion for sex-selection reasons rather than achieving at least a partial consistency by endorsing other equally valid reasons to oppose abortions. Becker, by the way, was appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope John Paul II. Thats curious because, as the heir of Milton Friedman, he personifies the bete noire to those schooled in traditional Catholic social thought. In this appointment, in my opinion, the Vatican shows more open-mindedness than many campuses. Needless to say, his appointment (in 1997) had nothing to do with his views on sex-selection. The issue is fascinating, as it seems to be a case where feminist advocates and conservative Catholics can unite.

I have no special insight, but this strikes me as one of those areas where the limits of the economic concept of "scarcity" and its correlation to value have clearly been reached. Throughout history women have always been scarcer than men. Think about it. They died much younger, on average, because of childbirth and you can go to any cemetery more than a hundred years old and see how many men had two or even three wives. That relative scarcity might have made them more "valuable" but that valued did not translate into greater personal freedom. Instead, if anything, the cosseting and hiding and limiting of women's freedom of movement could very well have been a result of their scarcity "value." Anecdotally, Mormon polygamy led to the kidnapping of women, which, like the brazen theft of gold or diamonds is correlated closely to the "value" of women. This kind of value is unlikely to be beneficial to women, however, and it's not the same thing as valuing women inherently for their own worth -- rather than for their usefulness in meeting your own purposes.