Last week I wrote about the practice of eugenics in modern American obstetrics: induced abortion performed because prenatal testing shows a potential chromosomal abnormality or birth defect. This past week, the BBC News Online ran a series of stories under the headline “India’s unwanted girls.” These stories tell of the practice in India of induced abortion performed because prenatal testing shows a particular unwanted chromosomal “abnormality”: the presence of the XX chromosome pair, i.e., aborting a baby simply because she is female. Because of long-standing prejudices and practices, in many parts of Indian society a female child is considered undesirable. There is widespread availability of prenatal ultrasound clinics for sex determination, and so many parents avail themselves of these clinics’ services to guide abortion decisions that in some areas of India there are less than 840 female children for every 1000 male children. Some Indian activists use the word “genocide” to describe this selective killing of girls. Lest anyone suspect that Indian families thought up this novel use of medical technology on their own, the following quote from the story provides chilling evidence to the contrary: “In 1974, Delhi’s prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences came out with a study which said sex-determination tests were a boon for Indian women. It said they no longer needed to produce endless children to have the right number of sons, and it encouraged the determination and elimination of female foetuses as an effective tool of population control.”
Three observations: First, given the rationalizations for the unfettered right to abortion that pro-choice advocates have promulgated in this country, they would be have to be mute in the face of sex-selective abortion. They cannot say that it is wrong to abort girls, because if it is wrong to abort girls, then it is wrong to abort boys. If they admit that it is wrong to distinguish — and extinguish — foetuses on the basis of an arbitrary criterion such as gender, then they would have to admit that it is wrong to do so on the basis of any arbitrary criterion — such as the presence of a disability.
Second, the term “genocide” used by certain Indian activists seems extreme, but it may not be such a long walk from eugenics to genocide. The justification used to commit foeticide on the basis of gender can be employed to commit foeticide, say, on the basis of a genetic predisposition to obesity (A 1993 March of Dimes poll found that 11% of parents said they would abort a fetus whose genome was predisposed to obesity), and is not far from the justification used to commit murder on the basis of whether one belongs to the Hutu or Tutsi tribe.
Third, this tragic story shows yet again what happens when medicine abandons its Hippocratic ethos of commitment to the patient and instead uses its considerable power to pursue goals such as “population control,” social stability — or eugenics.