Sex-selection is a good thing

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.

In case you are wondering what Quartz is, here’s a snippet from their About Quartz:

Quartz is a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy. We publish bracingly creative and intelligent journalism with a broad worldview, built primarily for the devices closest at hand: tablets and mobile phones.

Like Wired in the 1990s and The Economist in the 1840s, Quartz embodies the era in which it is being created.
. . .
Quartz is owned by Atlantic Media Co., the publisher of The Atlantic, National Journal, and Government Executive.

Author: Atanu Dey


11 thoughts on “Sex-selection is a good thing”

  1. hi,
    it is good to see your rational argument.
    However, I guess, since it is economics, there could be an economical solution as well. Incentives matter. Probably it would be be great to think of creating incentives for parents to have girl child – incentives as in economics – not the type provided by reservation (that is the only idea in India, unfortunately. Its efficacy need to be tested(what is happening on the ground) – but I thought the Rajalaxmi scheme in Karnataka to provide some fixed amount to a girl, registered at birth, when she attains certain age, is a good incentive. It will be nice to hear your thoughts.


  2. MSH, incentives are not needed. When 1 out of 10 men will have to go unmarried, the incentives will take care of themselves. Supply and demand, here too. In China, same thing happened, due to one child policy parents preferred boys and now, there are millions of youths who can’t find partners. The ones who can find someone to marry, have to show that they can afford a good home, car, etc before a woman is willing to partner with them. You could argue that its like the reverse of dowry. I hope to see that soon in India too.


  3. There has always been discrimination between girls and boys. India, still being a patriarchal society, girls are still considered as an economic liability. Government’s initiative in saving the girl child is notable. The arguments that you have put forward are really appreciable and coming up with such topic is also commendable. Thanks for a nice read.


  4. DJ, you are absolutely right. Hopefully in perfect market conditions where information travels without any frictions (Jargon :)), and impact over a longer time period is understood well, that could be the solution. If the assumption is that it is not, then incentives have the power to alter the behaviors in the short term and make positive impact (If the behavioral part of the incentives is well understood and tested for efficacy – a difficult task)in the long term. By the way i am not an economist by training, but interested in it.


  5. While it may be a good thing, things are only going to get worse before they get better, if at all they do. Given the glacial pace of change in India, when things start getting worse we’ll revert to what we do best – look for an excuse, a scapegoat. That’s usually the weakest, or most easily targeted, or those who have better things to do in life. In this case it will be the women themselves.

    It will be another one or two generations before we reach China’s current plight, where the boy has to “prove himself” usually by demonstrating he has a high paid job, property, money in the bank and is preferably settled overseas, before an eligible girl would even look at him.


  6. Men produce more sperm than ever required, by well over four or five orders of magnitude. Population growth can be limited only by limited availability of wombs, not sperm. Therefore, sex selection against girls will be very effective in curtailing population growth. If not actively encouraged, at least it should never be discouraged by the government. This is not about justice, this is about triage and saving an almost-sunk ship. So yet once again, the Indian government has an unerring compass that compels them to do what’s bad for the country!


  7. This has got to be the worst argument ever spewed in favor of sex-selective abortions. I am appalled to see even 6 comments that are supporting your view point. As an Indian man living in the US, you probably have little idea of what Indian women have to go through on a daily basis in India.

    The women who abort female fetuses are rarely the ones who make the decision. They are often forced into it by their husbands and in-laws, and maybe even their own parents. The practice of aborting female fetuses is supported by a stubborn and short-sighted culture that refuses to allow equal rights and respect to women.

    Are you really suggesting that the government should look the other way while millions of girls are killed before they are born? This kind of behavior has created an imbalance in society and if it needs to be fixed by intruding in the personal lives of citizens, then so be it. People brought it upon themselves by continuing this heinous practice.

    Next time you put up a badly thought out argument about what the government should or shouldn’t do, it would be worthwhile to put yourself in the shoes of an Indian woman and think ten times about what you should write about. You are completely out of touch with reality.


  8. @Priya:
    Yes, your intent is right, but here in India, reality has never every followed theory. You can bring in 1001 different regulations to prevent female foeticide but I guarantee it will be just as rampant given our backward mindset. In fact, things will only get worse because the culprits would now resort to more illegal means to achieve the same goal. That means illegal back-street testing and abortions that will be deathly dangerous.

    Your approach would make things much worse for women.

    If you disagree, show me one so-called rule or regulation that has worked beautifully in India. I will show you how it has always backfired, and /or resulted in huge scams and kickbacks to big ministers. How about RTI – the intent was nice, but now anyone invoking RTI has to fear for his life. How about “education for all” – who is going to pay for the crores of poor kids education? There’s no money. How about our favourite bugbear – caste based reservation? That’s the shining example of how not to do things. It has been a freaking disaster right from the beginning and has only served to dumb down everything and put undeserving and unqualified people in places they don’t deserve to be.

    Priya’s approach may be right only in the context of something like a spiritual movement like Ravi Shankar’s art of living or something like that where the elite can chit-chat about the evils of sex determination and dowry deaths while living it up in the Sheraton, far far away from these petty non-issues that bother the common man.


  9. The fight against selective abortion can be best fought with appeals from spiritual leaders, in my view. The choice of aborting a female baby is not only based on economics but it is also based on cultural practices.

    South Korea went through a similar problem. Eastern cultural preference of boys had made a situation similar to what is happening in India today. Rapid economic growth in a matter of a generation or two meant only a small fraction of population was working in farming and most jobs were in factories and service based industries where females can perform just as easily as males. As a result, apart from large amount of wealth creation and people enjoying very high levels of income, the gender ratio also fixed itself because having a baby boy did not make such a big difference.

    In India, a similar push towards modern jobs must be done and the 60% who work in farms need to go down to less than 10%, while rest all work in manufacturing and service. This will fix the economic part of this problem. A direct appeal by spiritual leaders (Baba Ramdev is already doing this) will fix the cultural part of the problem. This is the way to solve this issue.


  10. Not so long ago, infants were being separated from their Indian parents and taken into custody in Europe and USA because said parents allegedly neglected or abused their children. In one case the foundation of this suspicion was that there was “inadequate eye contact” between the infant and its mother. To my knowledge, in none of those cases “the authorities” were able to substantiate specific charges of neglect or abuse. I hope, for the sake of consistency, Atanu is as vehemently opposed to firang governments teaching parenthood to immigrant Indians as he is to the Indian government getting into our pants or wombs here. Somehow, he failed to express his outrage at those events.


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