Over at Quartz, my piece on the topic of sex-selection in India is titled, “Why Indian parents should be allowed to choose whether to have girls.” Writers often don’t have control over the titles of pieces but this one is not bad compared to the really lousy title of my piece in NitiCentral published yesterday which should have been titled “Sonia Gandhi’s travels are more mysterious than the Shroud of Turin & costlier than going to Mars.” C’est la vie and all that. Anyway, an extended excerpt below the fold.
The governments of some states in India have enacted laws which forbid selective abortion. Doctors are prevented from revealing information about the sex of an unborn child to the parents. Recently, to take an example, the state of Gujarat has made it mandatory for doctors who perform sonography tests on pregnant women to report the result—and other details about the family—online to the government. Technology once again to the rescue—this time for the benefit of governments which have an interest in controlling the sex-ratio of the population.
Government interference in the personal lives of people is nothing remarkable or new for India. After all, Indians endured British colonial rule until 1947 and following that, socialist governments took over which continued to enforce the rules inherited from the colonial period. So the denial of reproductive rights to women in India should not come as a surprise. This, however, is a particularly heartless move. It condemns too many girls to lives of great misery and to some to a death penalty for the crime of being born a girl.
Parental rights, one assumes, includes the freedom to decide when and how many children to have, and if possible, the freedom to choose the sex of their children. Forcing people to have children of an undesired sex is an infringement of those rights. The parents have the responsibility of bringing up their children, not the government. It can be argued that a skewed sex-ratio is not good for society. The question then is which of the two – forcing people to go through with unwanted pregnancies or a skewed sex-ratio – is less harmful to society. The answer to that is not a foregone conclusion.
The preference for boys over girls is a rational response to the prevailing social and economic conditions. Preferences change gradually, and that too only when conditions change. Government mandates—whether or not well-intentioned, rational, fair—are at best heavy hammers wielded clumsily by people who consider every problem to be a nail. Parents’ preferential desire for male children is not a technical problem and the use of technology to fulfil that desire does not make it into one. Indeed, any attempted technical solution can be circumvented: people determined enough figure out work-arounds which are usually technical.
Technology provides tools which are always neutral although economic agents using them are motivated by ends to which one may attach moral values. Those who want to use technology to limit human freedom are naturally opposed to those who use it to increase their choices.
By restricting information which may be useful for parents to make an informed choice whether or not to have a female child, the government is sacrificing the right of a child to a decent life in order to protect the “rights” of a fetus. If people cannot avoid having girls that they do not want, they will be forced to have more children to reach their desired number of sons, and to ration their resources to the detriment of girls. Rational responses to economic circumstances—poverty—cannot be averted by government mandate. Indeed it can be argued that the prevailing poverty itself has much to do with government mandates.
In the end, in the contest between the people and the government, the drive for freedom proves to be stronger and eventually overcomes the forces that seek to limit freedom. The government will fail in this case as well—as it must for the sake of the girls.
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