OSU researcher: Sex-selective abortion issue in India needs a ‘culturally relevant’ approach


CORVALLIS, Ore. – In an effort to stop the practice of aborting female fetuses, the Indian government is reportedly placing cradles around the country where it hopes female babies will be left by parents who don’t want them – an approach that an Oregon State University professor says will have limited impact on reducing feticide in India.

OSU professor Sunil Khanna, whose book on reproductive issues in India is due out this fall, says the government must adopt a more “culturally relevant” approach to curbing sex-selective abortions.

“A North Indian woman will not carry her baby to term, only to drop it off in an anonymous cradle,” Khanna said. “This issue is not about birth, it is about conception.”

Khanna, associate professor of anthropology, said understanding the history of reproductive issues in India, as well as understanding the current pressures on urbanizing communities in northern India, will help to create better practices around the use of reproductive technologies and might even diminish the practice of female feticide.

Khanna is an expert on social and health consequences of son preference and daughter neglect in India. In addition to completing his upcoming book, which carries the working title “Family Building Strategies in India: Reproductive Technology and Sex Selection,” Khanna has given numerous presentations in various academic and public forums and has published in leading journals, including Social Science & Medicine and Contemporary South Asia.

In his ongoing research, Khanna examines how caste and class preference, the individual’s exposure to and acceptance of state-sponsored family planning policies, and the use of new reproductive technologies influence decisions to use prenatal sex selection as part of a family-building strategy in India. Khanna, originally from northern India, spent time interviewing and researching the communities of Shahargaon, a north Indian village that is becoming increasingly urbanized.

Khanna said as these once-agricultural communities change, the pressure to create smaller families increases. He said the patriarchal system in rural north India has remained largely unaltered despite increased exposure to cities such as the capital New Delhi.

“In fact, we find that urbanization has only intensified patriarchal control, and that women continue to be marginalized,” Khanna said.

His research on sex-selection abortion shows that the majority of Indian couples do not use ultrasound technology to discover the sex of the fetus during the first pregnancy. However, Khanna said if the first baby is a girl, an Indian couple is likely to have an ultrasound done with the second pregnancy. If the first baby is a boy, then they do not normally have an ultrasound to find out the sex of the second baby.

“The trend is to avoid the birth of a second or third daughter,” he said. “It is not necessarily that they do not want any girls, but that if they must have a small family, then they want to limit the number of girls.”

The Indian government’s educational campaign to limit family size has, in part, led to more families making the choice to have sex-selective abortions, Khanna said.

The 1994 Prevention of Misuse of Technology Act outlawed sex-selective abortion in India. Abortion has been legal in India since the 1970s, and Khanna says the law is contradictory.

“On one hand, it is legal to have an abortion,” he said. “But if a couple knows the sex of the baby and wants to abort the fetus, then the act is illegal.”

Khanna hopes that the Indian government will intensify its efforts to implement educational programs that consider both the patriarchal history of northern India, as well as the way communities are changing.

“There will be stories in my book of women who go through the painful decision to have an abortion, and there are others who won’t do it,” Khanna said.

“Perhaps the government could provide incentives to having girls,” Khanna said, adding that he would like to see the discussion move beyond sex-selective abortions. “The larger goal should be to improve the status of women in India,” he said.