A UN report published yesterday (23 June) suggests that not only is sex selective abortion becoming a growing trend in many Asian countries, it is also having huge health and social consequences for women and girls.
Sadly, this is not news. Over twenty years ago, the Indian writer and thinker Amartya Sen wrote about the missing millions of girls in India, while China’s ‘One Child’ policy is widely thought to have led to a growing imbalance in the number of boys to girls. In these two largest nations on earth (together accounting for between a quarter to a third of the world’s population) there has always been a deeply entrenched cultural, social and economic bias towards boys rather than girls.
Historically, in many nations this has meant that girl babies would be more likely to be neglected, killed or left to die in preference to male children. But the arrival of ante-natal screening technologies and medical abortion seem to have accelerated this trend. In some parts of India and China there are as many as 120-130 boys for every 100 girls.
This bias towards boys is deeply entrenched, and although sex selective abortion is increasingly outlawed, the reality is that these laws are flouted and broken widely. The long term consequences of this are hard to predict. However, any society where there will be a lack of marriageable females and a surplus of males is storing up a whole mass of social and cultural troubles for itself. According the UN, one manifestation already being seen is the trafficking of women to correct the gender imbalance – often forcibly.
Another disturbing fact is that the trend towards sex selection is strongest amongst the urban middle and upper classes – where poverty is not the driving force. Poor villagers have less access to antenatal screening and medical abortion, but tend to take less care of their female children (stopping breast feeding earlier, giving smaller portions at meal times, less access to good clothing or education), and have more children to ensure a male child is born – each subsequent pregnancy increasing the health risks for the mother and subsequent children.
And even amongst the rich, evidence from here in the West is mounting that abortion can have long term mental health risks, can increase the risks of low birth weight in subsequent children and that there is a possible link to increased risks of breast cancer. These risks accrue the more terminations a woman has.
The UN rightly points out that more laws do not make much difference, but also bends over backwards to say that there should be no restriction in the provision of abortion services (a bit of UN double think I fear – surely access to the medical technology has been part of the problem, so surely there needs to be tighter regulation on its misuse as part of the solution?)
However, the UN does rightly argue for a wider engagement in education and mobilising civil society to change attitudes. This is to be applauded, as we know that this can work (e.g. the impact of joint government, church and voluntary sector responses to HIV prevention in Uganda and Senegal).
And this is an area where all faiths tend to agree. For instance, the Qu’ran speaks out specifically against female infanticide (Sura 81v8 & 9), while the early Christians were involved in caring for infants who had been abandoned at city gates to die, setting up the first ‘foundling homes’. This is an area where churches, mosques and other faith communities can be mobilised effectively to challenge attitudes in wider society.
Nevertheless this bias towards boys remains one of the great obstacles to women and newborns enjoying better health and greater longevity, slowing down progress to the fourth and fifth Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore it shows that the advent of modern medical technologies can exacerbate rather than improve health problems where social attitudes and values do not change.