DALLAS, February 22, 2014 ― In China and India, as well as other parts of the developing world, gendercide — a term used to describe the deliberate destruction of girls through either abortion or infanticide — is widespread. The advent of ultrasound to identify a baby’s gender in the womb has lead to increased targeting of girls through sex-selection abortion. One U.N. report estimates as many as 200 million girls may be missing.
Now, Western nations are finding that this practice has come to their shores. In a 2012 editorial, the Canadian Medical Association Journal wrote that the strongest evidence of sex-selection was among people from Asia including those from India, China, Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. A recent article in the British paper The Independent also found a gender imbalance, especially among immigrants from Asia, most likely due to sex-selection abortions.
In testimony before a U.S. House Committee of Foreign Affairs subcommittee last fall, Science Magazine contributing editor Mara Hvistendahl noted, “Sex-selective abortion following ultrasound scans is by far the most common means of sex-selection worldwide.”
In 2012, Canadian MP Mark Warawa introduced a motion condemning sex-selection abortion. That was withdrawn in 2013 after outcry from abortion rights groups claiming the measure was an attack on the legality of abortion rather than the issue of gendercide.
However this month, two medical groups, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada and the Canadian Association of Radiologists, issued a joint statement condemning ultrasound used for the sole purpose of determining the gender of the fetus. While sex-selection abortion is not mentioned in the statement, observers point to the practice as the impetus for the statement.
It’s a Girl, a documentary released in 2012, explores the cultural and political environment of India and China that has resulted in gendercide. Dr. Sabu George, a public health advocate and Fellow, Intercultural Resouces, Delhi states in the film, “Today, India and China eliminate more girls than the number of girls born in the United States every year.”
Dr. Puneet Bedi, an Obstetrician and Gynecologist at Idraprastha Apollo Hospital in Delhi notes that sex selection abortion, or female feticide, has caused a great increase in the number of girls killed. In the documentary, he says that historically, female infanticide occurred at a much smaller level; no more than 4 percent of baby girls were killed. Abortion has changed that, he says, “But now in modern societies like India and China, twenty, twenty-five, thirty percent of girls are being killed before birth.”
The film documents the story of Dr. Mitu Khurana, a woman who was pressured, abused, and eventually forced to get a sex-determination ultrasound against her will. When the ultrasound showed her to be pregnant with twin girls, her husband and his mother abused and imprisoned Khurana to pressure her to abort her children. She escaped and had her daughters two months prematurely.
Despite the illegal acts of her husband, as well as actions by the doctor who performed the ultrasound, government officials have not responded to her demands for justice. India has laws against sex determining ultrasound and sex selection abortions, but they do little to curb the practice. Khurana has become an activist calling for an end to the practice of female feticide, despite facing threats and condemnation, including a threat of rape by a doctor at the hospital where the illegal ultrasound occurred.
The documentary points out that not only sex-selection abortions, but infanticide and child abandonment have grown, particularly among poorer families. Additionally, the film explores dowry death, child trafficking, child abandonment, the struggles of Chinese couples who are illegally pregnant, and forced abortion and forced sterilization in China.
In China, the threat isn’t only a cultural preference for boys, but the government’s coercive birth control policy. Forced abortions and forced sterilizations, as well as crippling monetary penalties are used to enforce the one-child policy. Paid government informants turn in families who are pregnant with “unauthorized” children, and mothers can be forced into abortions up to the ninth month of pregnancy. The Chinese government boasts of performing 13 million abortions a year. Many of these are forced, according to Mark Shan, an analyst with Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
It’s a Girl is not just a film about heartbreaking statistics. It also brings stories of heroes and hope. Not only Khurana, but other families go to extraordinary lengths to save their daughters, including one young unmarried Chinese woman who bucks societal convention and the right to have her own “authorized child” in order to adopt an abandoned girl. These stories offer light in overwhelmingly dark circumstances.
The targeted killing of girls has resulted in a disparate ratio between men and women. This has lead to increased child trafficking and sexual abuse, issues which are garnering wider awareness. However, the root cause of these crimes is gendercide, which in the past has not received much attention politically or culturally. “Gendercide is happening in many places all over the world, including the United States,” said Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
Although previous efforts in both Canada and the United States to criminalize or at least condemn the practice of sex-selection abortions have failed, new attempts may succeed as the issue gains attention. “The issue of gendercide is gathering steam,” said Littlejohn. She notes It’s a Girl has been shown to the European Parliament, British Parliament and the U.S. Congress, and other legislative bodies are interested in screening it. “I believe it’s only a matter of time before these bodies issue a statement condemning the selective termination of pregnancies based on gender.”