Sex-selective abortions on the rise in India

According to new study published this week in the medical journal The Lancet, the number of sex-selective abortions being performed in India has been rising and continues to rise. The researchers estimate that between 4 million and 12 million sex-selective abortions have been performed in India in the last three decades. And in the past decade, the study found, the problem has worsened.

Despite legal restrictions making it illegal to use ultrasounds to determine the sex of a fetus, the practice has continued; it seems that these laws are rarely enforced and that private medical practices are largely unregulated. The result is that there are now 914 girls for every 1000 boys under the age of six. In 1961, the ratio was 976:1000. The New York Times reports:

Dr. Prabhat Jha, a lead author of the study, noted that the use of sex-selective abortions expanded throughout the country as the use of ultrasound equipment became more widespread. Typically, women from wealthier, better-educated families are more likely to undergo an ultrasound, Mr. Jha said, and researchers found that these families are far more likely to abort a girl if the firstborn is a daughter.

This is a story about abortion, of course, but it’s also about a much larger problem: the worth of a woman’s life. In a culture where, as the Times notes, sons inherit property and carry on the family name but daughters do not, girls are also more vulnerable to infanticide, abuse and neglect. In this context, it is understandable why some families would prefer female babies over male ones. This preference results not just in the abortion of female fetuses, but in the brutal mistreatment of women who fail to give birth to baby boys.

The BBC, in its coverage of the study, interviewed a woman who, after giving birth to three daughters, aborted three fetuses when she discovered they were female, before finally giving birth to a son.

Kulwant still has vivid memories of the first abortion. “The baby was nearly five months old. She was beautiful. I miss her, and the others we killed,” she says, breaking down, wiping away her tears.

Until her son was born, Kulwant’s daily life consisted of beatings and abuse from her husband, mother-in-law and brother-in-law. Once, she says, they even attempted to set her on fire.

“They were angry. They didn’t want girls in the family. They wanted boys so they could get fat dowries,” she says.

Upon the release of the most recent census, which revealed the startling disparity between the number of boys and girls, the Home Secretary admitted that government attempts to end sex-selective abortions had been unsuccessful saying that “Whatever measures have been put in over the past 40 years have not had any impact on the child sex ratio.”

Campaigners have taken up the cause, but their advocacy has had unfortunate side-effects: attempts to combat sex-selective abortion have made it more difficult for all women to access abortion, which was legalized in 1971. As one Indian reproductive rights activist wrote at Akimbo last year, many women who seek abortions in India are unsuccessful, because abortion providers fear being accused of breaking the law against sex-selective abortions. “When a woman comes in wanting a second trimester abortion for whatever reason, she’s often seen as guilty of asking to terminate the pregnancy for sex-selection reasons—and there’s no way of proving otherwise.”

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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