On Faith: Time to face the Karma debt - Consequences of sex-selective abortion in India

Minneapolis, MN (June 2, 2011) - As a regularly featured blogger on the Washington Post/Newsweek's "On Faith" blog, Dr. Aseem Shukla, member of HAF's Board of Directors, has the opportunity to provide a Hindu viewpoint on various issues. Below is Dr. Shukla's latest blog. Please post your comments directly on the "On Faith" site by clicking here.
 
Garbha-batta or womb killing in Sanskrit; abortion, if being political; feticide, to be provocative; or termination, the sanitized syntax. Whatever one chooses to call it, Hindus agree that the violence of the act accrues bad karma. A debt will have to be settled in this life or the next.
 
Yet the human story foretells that sin or karma really does not alter the human proclivity to make choices that have negative repercussions. These play out individually leaving mental and physical scars with guilt and shame. And based on a study released in the British medical journal, Lancet, abortion, which is typically sex-selective in India, has macrocosmic consequences as well.
 
A population based study based on the 2011 census just completed in India found almost seven million fewer girls than boys under the age of six, compared with a difference of roughly six million girls during the last census in 2001. This means that there are only 914 girls to 1000 boys under the age of six--a yawning gap that has widened. The sex ratio is nearly equal if only first pregnancies are studied, but the preference to eliminate a female fetus was striking for the second pregnancy if the first child at home was a girl.
 
In the tragedy of sex-selection, witness a conflict between social practice and religious reality. For mostly Hindu India, a daughter’s birth is celebrated as a harbinger for the advent of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. A daughter is to be seen as a living manifestation of the feminine divine, and treated as such. Sixteen rites of passage are prescribed for her life--one to be cherished equally regardless of gender. And as feminist scholars argue, not until the foreign invasions into the subcontinent--Mongol, Afghan, Central Asian, British--did regressive practices become rigidified, ostensibly to protect the chastity of women.
 
Abortion as a means of birth control--for unwanted pregnancies--is uncommon in India. Despite nearly four times the population of the United States, India records three times fewer total abortions every year, and ten times less than China. But the societal pressure to produce a male offspring, and subsequent sex-selectivity, is driving Indian society head-on towards a demographic disaster.
 
It is a global phenomenon outside of the western world that a patriarchal society means that a daughter is to be married one day and “gifted” to her husband’s family, while a son lives together in a joint household. It is also increasingly a quaint ideal, as urban mobility strains joint families, that a son is tantamount to social security, assisted living and retirement income all rolled into one. Traditions that a bride’s family pay the entire expense of a marriage celebration and provide ludicrously large dowries to the groom’s family all serve to reinforce male gender preference.
 
The pendulum of societal dynamics is swinging in response to the girl child deficit. The pure deficit of potential brides means women are increasingly valued at home and in the workplace. The new empowerment is giving rise to a new brashness and a refusal to conform to bygone codas. Stories of bridegrooms getting arrested and thrashed by the bride’s relatives for demanding a dowry are rampant in the Indian media, and families are beginning to share the expenses of weddings equally. Indian law closely protects inheritance rights and the laws against dowry and spousal abuse are increasingly enforced.
 
Abortion unleashes turbulence at the individual and societal level. It is an act with karmic consequences, as there are for every one of life’s decisions. Legislation or government cannot alone end the travesty of sex-selection as a reason for abortion. The change must happen organically, and that change is coming to India as the horror of the alternative becomes painfully clear.
 
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.