Abortion is a choice filled with moral ambivalences. JO CHOPRA seeks answers to who lies at the very bottom of the pile of ‘wantedness' …

Over 100 million baby girls are missing. Don't bother searching - they're gone forever. Victims of what The Economist - in its March 6 cover story – calls “gendercide,” they were detected to be female while in the womb and aborted because their parents preferred sons.

It's a hideous reality, particularly in North India, where the sex ratio in some areas (Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan are especially bad) is 120 boys to 100 girls. And the social consequence of an abnormal number of unattached men is frightening to contemplate. But I'm thinking more widely here - not about the horror of targeting girls, but the horror of targeting any baby, for any reason. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Women are constrained by biology. Children, even when they are planned and eagerly anticipated are still disruptive and demanding. For some women, pregnancy can be life-threatening. For poor women, another child may tip the balance into misery and chaos. And for any woman with career ambitions, a baby usually means postponing them.

So legal, safe abortion seemed an answer to prayer - the solution to unwanted pregnancy. But many things are not what they seem, and many great ideas turn out to be not so great.

Feminism gone awry

We can seldom predict the long term effect of our actions. Surely no feminist marching for the “right to choose” back in the 1970's imagined women would take that right and use it to kill their daughters. No feminist imagined the right to abortion would end up skewing the sex ratio to such an extent that even sober, staid sociologists, economists and bureaucrats are alarmed.

Because the killing was supposed to be random. Abortion was meant to be an equal opportunity destroyer. Any baby - black, brown or white, rich or poor, male or female - was supposed to have had as good a chance as any other of being targeted. The only criterion was supposed to be ‘wantedness'.

So what a shock for pro-choice activists to find that across all classes and colours little girls weren't wanted. And in such large numbers that sex ratios – a force of nature which even self-corrects for boys' greater susceptibility to infant disease – were massively affected. You might be forgiven for thinking that pro-choice feminists would sigh and leave it at that. After all, the fight was never for abortion – it was for choice. If women are choosing something I don't like, that's their choice. Right?

Wrong.

Pro-choice activists and traditional feminists around the world are united against “gendercide.” Here in India, laws prevent ultrasound clinics from revealing the sex of the baby and every State campaigns against female feticide. Chief Ministers and Governors, Mahila Mandals and school children: everyone is on the bandwagon. Because girls are essential. Where would we be without them?

In ecological terms, girls are a keystone species: one whose presence is crucial to a particular ecosystem and whose destruction can damage it irreparably. Girls are an unusually obvious choice. Because keystone species are generally not the ones we think of, not the ones on the hit parade. Lions and elephants don't make the list. Keystoners are more likely to be the spotted owl or the humble lichen. The kind of creatures you don't notice until they're gone.

The lichen, for example, is a colonising organism which can revitalize soil devastated by volcanic ash, fix its own nitrogen and disintegrate rocks. It may seem dispensable – it's only a fungus, after all. But without it, the ecosystem of the Arctic region would suffer cataclysmically and the entire planet would be affected. That lichen got me thinking. If baby girls are obvious, who are the ones we still aren't thinking of? Who are the snail darters, the spotted owls? Who are the less obvious targets, the ones whose absence will create a ripple effect we cannot even begin to imagine right now?

My money is on unborn babies with disability, the ones who have long been the acceptable target of amniocentesis detection and subsequent abortion, the ones everyone agrees are a tragedy and best done away with. It may take more imagination, but perhaps some Nobel Laureate will realize that a world without, say, Down's Syndrome kids(whose number has plummeted in the West since the test to detect them was perfected) would be a poor world indeed. That Nobel Laureate may even be able to figure out why.

The outrage over “gendercide” fills me with hope. When activists talk about women choosing to abort their daughters, they speak wisely, compassionately and insightfully about the societal problems that force women to make such heart-wrenching decisions. They focus on changing those forces because they know that the problem isn't the girls but a world that doesn't want them. Change the world.

Celebrating variety

We share this earth with a staggering array of life forms, each essential in its own way. Saying we are interconnected isn't a platitude, it's a fact. We exclude at our peril. Just “not excluding” may save us from great harm. Self-interest alone may be reason enough to do it. But inclusion is much more. Inclusion revels in the variety the earth contains and celebrates life for its own sake, not for what it saves us from. It's a wonderful world, unpredictable and full of surprises. Which sex you are, whether you have a brilliant mind or all your chromosomes in perfect order are just random facts about you. They aren't the whole story.

Little girls, spotted owls and people with disabilities enrich our lives in ways we cannot begin to fathom and those of us lucky enough to be ecologists in the particular ecosystems they inhabit can make grateful lists of rocks they have disintegrated and nitrogen they've created from thin air.

But that's a bonus. Like the rest of us, they're here because they're here. They don't need to justify their existence. For just as “every cubic inch of space is a miracle,” so every species is a keystone species.

The author is the Executive Director of the Latika Roy Foundation, the Dehradun based Resource Centre for People with Special Needs (www.latikaroy.org). She can be reached at jo@latikaroy.org