CORVALLIS - Modern reproductive technologies have enabled excited parents-to-be to learn the sex of their unborn child months before the actual birth, but these technological breakthroughs are causing unexpected consequences abroad, according to an Oregon State University anthropologist who for years has studied "female feticide."
In India and some other southern and southeastern Asian countries that are historically patriarchal, a growing number of families are seeking abortions if they learn their unborn baby is female, according to Sunil Khanna.
"There are laws in India against using such prenatal information to initiate abortions," said Khanna. "But to date, the number of actual prosecutions under these laws is zero. The laws simply have no teeth."
Khanna is an associate professor of anthropology in OSU's College of Liberal Arts who is spending this term as a fellow in the university's Center for the Humanities. For the past 10 years, he has conducted extensive research on female feticide and he has worked with an activist group in India that is lobbying the government to address the problem. It is a complex issue with many layers that are not always fully understood by Westerners, he says.
Nationally, there are 933 females in India for every 1,000 males. In a country of more than 1 billion people, that means there are about 35 million fewer females than males.
And the problem is getting worse.
In one urbanizing village outside New Delhi, where Khanna returns regularly to continue his work, there are only 400 females for every 1,000 males among children five years of age or younger.
"People in India talk a lot about gender equality and the same desire for girls and boys," Khanna said, "but when it comes to practice, boys take preference. Abortion is legal in India, though a clinician is legally not permitted to tell the parents if the fetus will be a boy or girl. But if he simply says, 'it is time for celebration,' it is clear that it is a boy.
"That kind of system is also tailor-made for under-the-table payoffs," Khanna added.
Many Americans find it difficult to comprehend the complex historical and cultural dynamics that produce such a strong male preference in India's society, Khanna said. Men in India generally stay with their families, control the resources, and inherit parental property. Women, he added, are considered an economic burden because their marriage includes a dowry.
And traditionally, women marry out of the region and move in with their husbands and their husbands' families, so they have no resources of their own. Likewise, they have little control over their own parents' resources.
Underlying those traditions are religious systems that include birth and death rites and ancestral rites that are built upon male dominance.
"The government and various non-governmental organizations have been trying to change people's attitudes by telling them that it doesn't really matter if it is a boy or a girl," Khanna said. "But it has mattered for 2,000 years, and that isn't something you change easily overnight."
Khanna is trying a different approach - arguing that these reproductive technologies are influencing India's demographics to such an extent that there will be a shortage of women when today's children reach marrying age.
It's a tough sell, he admits.
"Most people simply don't believe it," he said. "If there is a shortage of brides in one region, they simply go to the another region for brides. They don't see the big picture."
There is a school of thought among some in India that feticide has a beneficial aspect - it helps to control India's population. The government encourages families to have only one or two children and provides tax incentives and social programs to encourage small families. Yet historically many parents, desperate to have boys, have continued having children until a male child is born, creating larger families.
Ideally, Khanna said, a family in India will have two children - a boy and a girl. Having two boys also is desirable to most families. But having two or more girls with no boys is considered by many to be a burden.
"On paper, according to the government, everything is rosy," Khanna said. "There are tax breaks and tax credits for families with girls, there is free education, and even free food in school. But the problems are getting worse. When girls begin developing their secondary sexual characteristics, the families tend to pull them out of school and the cultural issues of preserving women's sexuality and other cultural biases kick in.
"Those incentives don't come close to outweighing the perceived advantages of having boys," he added. "The numbers back it up. There just aren't as many girls being born since ultrasounds and amniocentesis became available."
Many social reformers thought urbanization of Indian villages would bring change, reckoning that the loss of land ownership would lessen the dowry demands and change the view of women as an economic burden. The opposite has taken place, Khanna says.
"The bias is still there and stronger than ever," he pointed out. "People in these areas feel threatened by the urban world. The economic opportunities cities provide are something they believe only boys can take advantage of; it is 'too dangerous' or 'too threatening' for girls. It has served to increase the seclusion of women and the control of their movement."
It is a bleak picture Khanna presents. A potential shortage of women, he says, likely won't increase their status in society.
"In the past, when this has happened, women don't have more value," he said. "Rather they are treated like commodities, to be bought and sold in the market."
Khanna and other scholars nevertheless are forging ahead and pushing the concept for "balanced families" that have equal numbers of boys and girls. Eventually, he believes, they will be successful. But the present system has been in place for 2,000 years and that is a lot of history to overcome.
"India's youths are beginning to rebel and as more girls go to school, they are beginning to earn more professional degrees," Khanna said. "The other step needs to be for the government to enforce the laws it has passed and put some teeth into them. If clinicians were to lose their licenses for breaking the law, it might have a remarkable effect on their attitudes and behaviors."