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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  • Jennie

    Why do people still blame the women for the baby’s gender? If anyone can be at fault, it’s the guy. (Not that I think guys are at “fault,” mind you.)

    But, yeah, I thought everybody pretty much knew about the whole Y chromosome and where it comes from thing. I could understand for people in extreme poverty I guess, since they may not have access to the information. But if this problem is also coming from affluent families, I just don’t see what excuse there could be. Has anyone tried to educate them?

    • desigirl

      “has anyone tried to educate them?”

      As an Indian-American woman, this comment really upsets me. The idea that Indians need “someone to educate them” is extremely racist and infantilizing. It stinks of White, Western privilege. Indians aren’t stupid and don’t need basic biology education. Rather, it’s that many of these families that have sex-selective abortions choose to IGNORE the reality that it’s not the woman’s fault. It comes from the fact that India is wholly patriarchal, especially the small villages. Westerners don’t need to go and educate them. The change has to come from within society, and it’s already happening. Reformers are pushing for more stringent laws on sex-selective abortions and are setting up campaigns to raise awareness about this issue. What’s more is that Indian women are showing what they are capable of by getting more degrees than ever before and working in historically male-dominated fields such as medicine and law. So again, it’s Indians educating other Indians (because they know and live in the culture) rather than Westerners needing to go in and “educate” these uncivilized Indians.

    • konkonsn

      I don’t feel like abuse tends to have good reasons behind it. People who like to make other people feel lesser and enjoy hurting others will find an excuse. Or else they’ll find something convenient that lets them target someone other than themselves (or makes sure someone else besides them is being targeted by those around them).

  • Praavita

    Hi I just posted, I’m guessing it’s up for moderation by now. Whoever is reading it, could you put this version up instead…

    Hi, I’m from India. Specifically, I live in a very large city. The article about the increase in sex selective abortion appeared in newspapers here too. The statistics are quite alarming. There have been a number of measures initiated by both the government and many non governmental organisations in the last few years to try to dislodge the idea that daughters are inherently less valuable than sons. Sons (usually the wives of sons) take care of their parents, inherit property and carry on the family name while the daughter belongs to the family that she is married into. There is is quite clearly a deeply rooted system of patriarchy in place.

    I think I’d like to respond to the “Has anyone tried to educate them?” Hello, I am ‘them’. I’m about 20 years old, I study philosophy, and I would probably be from a middle class to upper middle class household. I have had an excellent education. So have a lot of the people I know. My family is quite liberal, which I didn’t really know because I thought everyone was like that. I find that education has not really made that much of a real impact for a majority of people (it has for quite a few). Even in college, where a lit major (who has been taught by feminist professors) will say things like “you should never earn more than your husband”. Saying the whole Y chromosome thing (more “education”), doesn’t explain the relation between women and childbearing in our society. And the comment that “I just don’t see what excuse there could be” makes no sense because it is clearly patronizing and it shows a lack of understanding.

    What I am trying to highlight is the fact that people cannot be separated from the society and families into which they are born. Families put a vast amount of pressure on newly married girls. There is the pressure to produce sons. People don’t exactly “blame the woman for the baby’s gender”. They just want sons. It’s that simple. The producer should produce them and when they don’t, they are either punished or censured or talked about (which is much scarier than it sounds).

    It isn’t just Indian women who have these abortions. It is the society and space that surrounds them that helps to make the decision. That being said, it isn’t as if women don’t want to have sons, or don’t care about the sex of their child. They also believe that males are better. I would venture that this view is held by a majority of society (I don’t have particular statistics to prove this, but I feel like the sex ratio says it all).

    Yeah yeah it’s all supposed to be getting better. Women in India are breaking glass ceilings. (Desigirl, for the changes in “small villages”, you should perhaps check out Kim Longinotto’s documentary called ‘Pink Saris’ and maybe read about it afterwards). We feel like we’re moving somewhere. The economy is growing, as more people become more affluent, they gain access to sex selective abortion. So I would say that the declining sex ratio can be explained by an increasing affluence that has not been complemented with any major changes in the patriarchal structure.

    It is shocking and it is sad. I think a lot more people would do it if they could.