Maneka, think first then speak

Maneka, think first then speak

Union minister Maneka Gandhi has played down her suggestion for compulsory sex detection tests on foetuses at the beginning of pregnancies for all women. She said it was only her personal opinion. But ministers should not express personal opinions on sensitive issues which have serious import and implications. The minister was not airing a view that just came to her mind. She had said that advances in technology had made sex tests very cheap, and that changing government policy may be better than ‘making criminals of people’. She was trying to app-roach the problem of female foeticide and infanticide from the opposite end of the present policy – making the sex tests mandatory, instead of banning them as the existing law does. She had obviously thought through the policy, but not enough and well and wisely.

The difficulty with the minister’s idea is both practical and conceptual. The proposal involves determining the sex of the foetus early in the pregnancy, putting it on record and telling the mother about it, conducting all deliveries only in hospitals and tracking the mother through the child-bearing period and for one year after delivery. This is not a practical proposal in a country where the percentage of institutional delivery is not very high. If the government cannot provide the infrastructure and facilities for child birth for every woman, mandatory deliveries in hospitals cannot take place. The new strategy will collapse with that. Knowledge of the sex of the child will actually put pressure on the woman and make her more vulnerable if she is carrying a girl child. It might also shift responsibility from the errant doctor to the woman, who may not be in a position to take a decision herself. She may also be held answerable in case of a miscarriage. If it is difficult to monitor the working of diagnostic centres, would it be possible to monitor millions of individual cases of pregnancies?

Practical problems apart, there is an issue of privacy and individual autonomy involved in the idea. Not every woman would want to know the sex of the child during the pregnancy. What right does the government have to secure the information, especially when she has not violated any law? There is an authoritarian element in it and in a way the proposal is similar to the idea of compulsory family planning. The falling child sex ratio is a matter of serious concern. Effective implementation of the existing policy and a change of attitude among the people are needed for it, but not a drastic change of policy.
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