India's "missing girls"

The Washington Times looks at the country's spate of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide.

Published March 2, 2007 8:06PM (EST)

The graphic advertising the Washington Times' four-part series on sex-selective abortion and female infanticide should tell you a little something about the politics at play in its coverage: The words "Killing Eve: India's Abortion Crisis" appear in large text over a red background. It was fair enough warning to take cover from the surefire hailstorm of political rhetoric and hyperbole to come. But we're still left to don some waders in hopes of trudging through the remaining swamp.

In a few words, the Times sums up the grim reality for many Indian girls: "First, there are the baby girls who, simply because they are female, are put on piles of dry grass and burned. Or they are placed in bags and fatally stabbed." The estimates for the numbers of India's "missing girls" are bleak: UNICEF places the number at 2.5 million a year; there are a total of 43 million "missing" Indian girls, according to the medical journal Lancet.

But, at least for me, the Times' political motivation eclipses its reporting on the issue of sex-selective abortions. Author Julia Duin refers to sex-selective abortions as "female feticide," which, at least in this country, carries a bigger punch than "abortion." The terms aren't drastically different in definition, but it's a politically significant choice, similar to others made time and again throughout the piece: An interviewee refers to medical practitioners who perform sex-selective abortions as "womb raiders"; there's the weighty series title "Killing Eve"; and the fourth installment in the series looks critically at General Electric for supplying India with thousands of ultrasound machines (which, mind you, are not inherently evil) and quotes an Indian activist: "In the United States, ultrasound is used to protect the fetus. Here it is used to destroy it."

Duin also raises questions about hypocrisy among feminists who campaign for a woman's right to choose but condemn sex-selective abortions. Reporter Elisabeth Bumiller's "May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons" is quoted: "Was it intellectually consistent to be in favor of a woman's right to abortion yet opposed to sex-selective abortion? Some Indian feminists referred to sex-selective abortion as 'female feticide,' which made me wonder why they were not opposed to 'male feticide' as well." But, please, "male feticide," understood in this case as the widespread practice of aborting male fetuses because of their maleness, just ... does not exist.

There definitely are hypocritical feminist arguments about sex-selective abortions. But they don't necessarily have to be so. Individual decisions to end a pregnancy are completely different from the systematic eradication of one gender of fetus. Not to mention, as our readers have argued before, it's possible to fully support a woman's choice to have a sex-selective abortion while condemning the social and economic conditions that make that an appealing choice or -- for poor Indian families unable to commit to a dowry -- no real choice at all.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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