Selective abortion, cultural lenses, and the universals of family existence

I recently watched “It’s a Girl,” a documentary made in 2012 about the sociocultural phenomenon of female feticide and infanticide, both of which take place in parts of India and China, where the preference for a boy baby – “son-preference” – is derived from traditional patriarchal views of girls as “burdens” on their families. In older times, girls offered less benefit to their families as laborers for the family good, as they were physically weaker and/or were often not allowed to work; when they reached marrying age, they left to join their husband’s families, unable to help continue the family line or traditions and leaving their parents to manage their older age alone. Adding to these culturally sanctioned charges against girl children, the traditional dowry system in India demanded a hefty and often unaffordable payment to the family of the girl’s husband.

Though technically illegal, the dowry system is still in effect in parts of India today, bringing families to consider aborting female fetuses or killing or abandoning female infants as an economic decision necessary for survival. “A thief has come,” quotes the movie from a traditional Rajasthani proverb warning about the portentous birth of a girl into a family. Though the practice of female infanticide seems (according to the movie) to be more common in rural areas than in urban, cosmopolitan ones and may be on the decline, the decision to terminate a pregnancy that would result in a girl child being born still takes place in surprisingly high numbers. Through developments in and access to medical innovation in the second part of the 20th century, sex-selective abortion has resulted in large numbers through the use of pre-natal sex determination, and while such testing is currently illegal in India and China, some doctors continue to use these techniques to inform pregnant women and their families of the sex of their unborn children, which over time has contributed to a dangerous disproportion between females and males in these countries. Organizations such as Seneca International fight this deep-rooted cultural practice of female feticide and infanticide, arguing that the continuation of such practices may likely have strongly negative impacts on the countries “whether seen from a purely moral, or a purely pragmatic point of view.” With smaller proportions of girls and women in countries that continue to prioritize males over females, rape and sex trafficking are on the rise alongside the continued practice of eliminating female fetuses and infants (for more information about this, read The Washington Post’s 1993 article entitled “The Burden of Womanhood: Third World, Second Class”). Considering these developments in addition to the heavy social and economic costs levied by restricted access to education and opportunity on girls and women in countries where this continues to occur, it is clear that a perpetuation of females as “second-class citizens” in their own families and communities is far from over.

For those of us who live in places where such events are unheard of, if not unthinkable, learning of these cultural practices and their accompanying beliefs causes sorrow at knowing of the devastation of so much human potential, and the suffering that the women of these societies must face. Knowing that they, their daughters, their sisters are seen as a “burden” to their families is, to those of us who have grown up in a country that espouses equality between the genders and at least plays conscious catch-up to make such an ethos true, overwhelming, and resounds with many other terrible stories of the day-to-day, normalized abuse, oppression, marginalization, and prolonged servitude of women all over the world.

Reflecting on this, I realize first of all that I am permitted my cultural bias in having such a reaction (which I did) and also being immediately aware that I have great luxury in being able to access this information using my Netflix account and watching it from the comfort of my middle-class American home (which I did); being aware of the sociocultural lens I apply in addressing any cultural practice outside my own set of values is important to being, well, maybe not more objective, then at least less unilaterally subjective. Ironically, however, I ended up considering some ideas that worked counter to these selfsame beliefs, at least on a theoretical level. And while I’m pro-abortion rights, it did bring me to some interesting conclusions.

When I heard the word “feticide,” it occurred to me that as an alternate term for “abortion,” the word carries the distinct implication of “killing” (from the suffix –cide, as in “fratricide” or “homicide”), rather than the association of “abortion” with a more neutral sense of disruption and termination of a pregnancy (which may or may not occur as a result of choice by the mother). Why is a term such as “feticide” chosen? Of course it’s used to create a stronger association between the choice the woman and man who conceived a female fetus make and murder, thus creating a more compelling case for stopping the practice altogether. This I can understand, though I also believe there is a subtle decision being made here in order to send certain messages (as happens with the spinning of stories in the media every day, a.k.a. propaganda, which simply means the presentation of information from only one perspective).

Thinking the concept of sex-selective abortion – and selective abortion in general, whichaccording to the BBC takes place in part because “having a child causes a crisis for a woman” – it is interesting to consider how much we can be shocked by what happens in other countries while seeing what takes place on our home turf as a simple extension of social norms that we take for granted. The term “burden” for me is key, because it creates a parallelism I had not considered before. In some traditional communities in India and China, girls are seen as “burdens” and having a girl is considered a struggle, a potential hardship brought upon the family. Yet how different is this from the “burden” some families in America cite in deciding whether or not to continue with a pregnancy that will result in the birth of a child with a disability?

Economic considerations are often cited as a reason for not having a child with an intellectual or physical disability, and though it is not generally discussed in casual conversation (the loss of life requires, after all, a modicum of delicacy), any American family that decides to selectively abort a fetus identified as having future disabilities could do so without suffering criticism or censure. Even non-economic rationales are tolerable in such situations, as families may choose not to have a baby with disabilities because it would ‘take over their lives’ or ‘be too hard.’ In a country where we so value independence and freedom as our daily mantras, the limit on one’s economic or personal freedom is considered a barrier to be eliminated if at all possible. Perhaps this is the reason why selective abortion of a fetus with Downs Syndrome or cerebral palsy might be seen as…well, an option.

I am not advocating the banning of all abortion (or feticide, depending on the term you choose to use), nor am I implying that girls equate to people with disabilities. Rather, I ask the question of what qualifications we accept in defining what is “burdensome” – and how far culture goes to define this for us – and what is considered intolerable to any family, regardless of country of origin. Is it economic hardship and limitation, a loss of any chance for a good life for its members? If so, then we might consider that the problematic view of girls becomes slightly more understandable, if perhaps not morally acceptable, in the socioeconomic context of life in rural India. We must, after all, resist the urge toward cultural imperialism, sweeping our hand across another less powerful country to wipe away practices we despise without a care for the how or why of their part in the complex cultural fabric of the place. At least, we might review our indignation that this could ever take place and tilt the looking-glass back towards ourselves, in all our equality and cultural superiority. We might, indeed, ask ourselves about how it is that we define, whether consciously or not, certain members of our society as “burdens” to our own ways of life.


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