Learning from India's abortion problem

Posted: Jan 09, 2004 12:00 AM

As the 31st anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision arrives later this month, U.S. newspapers will run a few stories about America's quietly continuing abortion plague. But in India, where cars stop for sacred cows but abortion or infanticide of little girls is rampant, the problem is very visible on streets where young men without women prowl.

Skewed birth statistics tell the story. For example, look at the district-by-district birth figures for areas surrounding the ancient pilgrimage region of Madurai in south India. Usilampatti in December 2002 had 910 male births and only 690 female ones. Chellampatti had 848 male births and 623 female ones. And so it goes: Boy babies are desired, girl babies despised and, probably one out of four times, killed.

Most Indians desire male sons for both theological and economic reasons. Only sons can perform the funeral rites that purportedly help give souls safe passage to good rebirths. Only a son can snag a dowry from the family of a bride that must provide cash or cattle to have him take the daughter off its hands.

What one journalist (The Hindu, July 24, 2003) called "the fear of giving birth to female babies" now has technological teeth. Health officials say that many parents still obtain sex ID scans despite legal pressure on doctors not to provide such information. When one mark on the screen is missing, abortion beckons. Among those not so technologically adept, infanticide of just-born little women remains a threat. (Once the right to abortion is secured, why not view infanticide merely as a late abortion?)

All of this occurs despite the anti-abortion messages inscribed in Hinduism's sacred texts. For example, in the 10th volume of the ancient Rig Veda, the 162nd aphorism advocates the safety of pregnancy and strongly protests against abortion: "O! Pregnant women: Whichever monster approaches you with the evil intention to destroy your pregnancy/Whoever approaches your womb/Let fire destroy him ..."

The hymn continues, "O! Pregnant women: Whichever devil kills the pregnancy that lives in your womb/ Whichever monster kills the fetus that is taking human shape by three months/ Whoever intends to kill the baby that is evolved in 10 months/ I destroy him in the presence of this sacred fire. ... Whoever carries you to a dreamy state of a fool and tries to abort your pregnancy, tries to kill your baby/ I destroy him in the presence of this holy fire."

Today, though, abortionists are not destroyed. Indian feminists don't like sex-selective abortion, but they do like the availability of abortion generally, so most don't speak out both for fear of upsetting the applecart and out of general principle: If a woman has "the right to choose" and chooses to abort an unborn girl because she's not a boy, what's wrong with that?

It's obviously wrong for the individual child who is killed. Some writers equate the pro-life movement now with the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s or the Dalit ("untouchable") rights movement in India now, but the situation of unborn children in the United States or India now is even worse, since an unborn child has only subjective rights: If she's "wanted" by the mother, she is protected; but if "unwanted," she has no rights.

Abortion is also wrong for nations. European countries that provide equal-opportunity abortion -- boys and girls are killed in approximately the same numbers -- face a general birth dearth that is jeopardizing their governmental pension systems. India has millions of mateless young men who may provide eager cannon fodder for neo-fascist demagogues ready to rumble with Pakistan.

Solutions? Maybe bards can deal with the problem better than politicians have. The great 17th century Indian poet Tukaram wrote, "That man is true/ Who takes to his bosom the afflicted. ... The heart of such a man is filled abrim/ With pity, gentleness and love/ He takes the forsaken for his own."