The MTP Act 1971 should be amended so that it permits abortion of only the first trimester pregnancies, and not those more than 12-14 weeks old when the sex of the foetus will be known.

Pre-natal diagnostic techniques, used to detect genetic abnormalities, were introduced in India in the 1970s. But these techniques are being misused to determine the sex of the foetus and to abort female foetuses. According to a study in India by an Indo-Canadian team of researchers, about 5,00,000 female foetuses have been aborted annually. This estimate appears to be closer to the truth.

In India, the child sex ratio (CSR), expressed as the number of girls per 1,000 boys in the age group 0-6, has been continuously declining during the last 40-50 years. It was 976 in 1961, 964 in 1971, 962 in 1981, 945 in 1991, 927 in 2001 and 914 in 2011. The Indo-Canadian team found that in cases where the preceding child was a girl, the sex ratio for the subsequent birth was 759 girls per 1,000 boys. And when the two previous children were girls, the ratio fell even further to 719 girls.

Social activists and non-governmental organisations raised a hue and cry over female foeticide. As a result, Parliament passed the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 (referred to as the PNDT Act), which came into operation from January 1, 1996. However, during implementation, some inadequacies and practical difficulties in the administration of the Act came to the notice of the government. At the same time, techniques have been developed to select the sex of the child before conception and these have also contributed to the decline in the CSR.

Taking into consideration these developments, the Act has been amended. It is now called the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of selection) Act, 1994 (referred to as the PC & PNDT Act) and it came into force with effect from February 14, 2003. Doctors and radiologists conducting, or soliciting parents for, sex determination tests can be imprisoned up to five years and fined up to Rs.50,000. Despite the PC & PNDT Act, the conviction rate is low and the selection of male child before conception and female foeticide continue to take place.

Medical termination of pregnancy (MTP) is a respectable term for abortion. It follows that the MTP Act 1971 is an abortion law. According to the Act, when the length of pregnancy does not exceed 12 weeks, one medical practitioner can perform abortion; when it exceeds 12 weeks but does not exceed 20 weeks, not less than two practitioners should perform the abortion. The sex of the foetus will not be known until the pregnancy is 12-14 weeks old. Couples opt for female foeticide after the sex of the foetus is known, that is, after the pregnancy is more than 12-14 weeks old.

The MTP Act 1971 allows abortion when continuance of the pregnancy endangers the life or physical/mental health of the woman; if it is going to result in genetic abnormalities in the child; when the pregnancy is caused by rape; or when it occurs as a result of failure of any family planning device or method adopted by the couples. But for an amendment in 2002, which does not affect the present discussion, the 40-year-old law remains, by and large, in the same pristine condition.

It is well known that even educated and economically well-off couples resort to female foeticide. Some unscrupulous couples who are aware of the provisions of the MTP Act 1971 might mention one of the reasons for the MTP and resort to sex selective abortions.

The number of MTPs performed increased from 388,405 in 1980-81 to 770,714 in 2001-02. Not all the additional MTPs are sex selective abortions. But one can say with certainty that some of them could be female foeticides. Although it may be said that the MTP Act 1971 abets female foeticide, it is difficult to suggest the extent to which it does.

Implications

While female foeticide is bad in itself, the fact that millions of girls are “missing” in India has profound human and social implications. If the decline in CSR continues for another 20-30 years, the number of marriageable females will be far less than that of marriageable males. This will lead to the disappearance of the dowry problem and the old practice of giving and taking a bride price will come back into vogue. Polyandry (a woman having more than one husband at a time) may also emerge. Since monogamy is the ideal in India, many men may be required to embrace celibacy. The imbalance in sex ratio may increase violence, including rape, against women. With many men remaining unmarried, prostitution will increase substantially.

A multipronged attack is necessary to tackle the problem of female foeticide. Both the PC & PNDT Act and the Dowry Prohibition Act should be implemented more effectively than before. The MTP Act 1971 should be amended in such a way that it permits the abortion of only the first trimester pregnancies, and not those which are more than 12-14 weeks old when the sex of the foetus will be known.

Educational programmes encouraging parents to view daughters as no less valuable than sons need to be mounted. Turning the girl child from an economic liability into an asset is the most effective way of tackling the problem.

The government should offer incentives of free education, extra PDS ration and, perhaps, even tax concessions for parents of girl children. Anyone involved in sex selection and pre-birth elimination of girls should be ostracised by society.

(The writer's email is mailzoomer@gmail.com)

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