Sex determination: An old law, a new debate

On Monday, Maneka Gandhi said sex determination during pregnancy must be made compulsory, a statement she later said was only an “alternative view”.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Published:February 4, 2016 12:39 am
maneka gandhi, sex determination, , women and child development, child sex determination in india Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi.

What does the law say about sex determination?

The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003, commonly called PC-PNDT Act, makes it illegal to determine the sex of the unborn child or even use sex-selection technologies. The law first came into force in 1996 as the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994, in response to the falling sex ratio and fears that ultrasound technologies were being used to determine the sex of the foetus. The law was amended in 2003 to bring the technique of preconception sex selection within the ambit of the Act – essentially, banning practices where medical practitioners try to influence the sex of the child before conception by using techniques such as sperm sorting (where a sperm cell is specifically chosen because of its sex chromosome). The law as it stands not only prohibits determination and disclosure of the sex of the foetus but also bans advertisements related to preconception and prenatal determination of sex.

What are the provisions of the Act?

According to the Act, ultrasound clinics, genetic counselling centres and genetic laboratories cannot be used for conducting pre-natal diagnostic techniques except for detecting abnormalities such as chromosomal abnormalities, genetic metabolic diseases, sex-linked genetic diseases and congenital anomalies. The Act makes it mandatory for all ultrasound facilities to be registered and for medical practitioners to maintain records of every scan done on pregnant women.

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What was the need for such an Act and how many convictions have there been so far?

Since 2000, both high courts and the Supreme Court have delivered a series of judgments, taking a serious view of sex-selective practices by the medical fraternity and the connection it may have with skewed sex ratios. In September 2001, following a public interest litigation – filed by the Centre for the Enquiry of Health and Allied Themes, rights group Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal and Dr Sabu George, who had been pushing for the effective implementation of the PMDT Act — the Supreme Court passed an order for strict implementation of the Act and reiterated it again in September 2003.

The rate of conviction has been poor. From 2003 to December 2014, only 206 doctors had been convicted by courts, of which Maharashtra had the highest number at 96, followed by Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. At least 15 states and four union territories had zero convictions all these years.

The woman and child development minister’s proposal is that the gender of the child be compulsorily registered and the birth be tracked. Activists have opposed the idea, saying it will only make female foeticide more rampant. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar) The woman and child development minister’s proposal is that the gender of the child be compulsorily registered and the birth be tracked. Activists have opposed the idea, saying it will only make female foeticide more rampant. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

Isn’t the Act effective enough?

According to experts, the problem isn’t with the Act but with its implementation. State advisory committees that help in implementing the Act do not meet regularly. Besides, there is poor monitoring of ultrasound clinics. Such clinics are required to maintain records of the scans they conduct but the violators are often let off with a fine.

What is Maneka Gandhi’s proposal?

Responding to a question about people employing different means to detect the gender of an unborn child despite the existence of the Act, the Minister of Women and Child Development said in Jaipur that she had proposed “to all parties and ministers” that the gender of the child be compulsorily registered and the birth be tracked. “This PC-PNDT Act is not under me, but with the health ministry. But till when will we keep arresting people? In this country, if a person goes to an ultrasound owner and asks for the gender of his (unborn) kid, who will dare say no,” Maneka said. She later clarified that hers was only an “alternative view” and that no such formal proposal was being considered either by the ministry or the Cabinet.

What are the objections to Maneka Gandhi’s proposal?

Activists and experts have roundly opposed the idea, saying it will only make female foeticide more rampant. “How feasible is it to monitor 29 million pregnancies annually when the government hasn’t been able to check 50,000 ultrasound clinics,” Dr George, the campaigner for ‘saving the girl child’, told The Indian Express.

Experts say that the idea of compulsory sex determination will only push women to unsafe abortions. “There will be greater pressure on the pregnant woman from her family if they find out early on that her second or third child is a girl,” said George.

Experts also say that no test can be made mandatory in a democracy such as India. Besides, they say, the proposal is an encroachment on a woman’s reproductive rights and shifts the burden on the woman by criminalising her. “Spare the woman. It’s more import to change societal mindsets,” says Vibhuti Patel, head of the department of economics at SNDT Mumbai University and a woman’s rights activist.