pp. 398-402 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

F15. Bioethics of Sex Preference

Jai Rup Singh.

Centre for Genetic Diseases, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India

The preference for a male child is almost a universal phenomenon. Hanmer (1981) has reported that there are only 5 societies in the whole world - all primitives - where female children are preferred. For begetting a male child, numerous methodologies, procedures and concoctions have been advocated since time immemorial. In some societies the male preference was so strong that female infanticide was practised. As these practices were limited, none of these resulted in a significant deviation in the sex ratios at the population level - to become a cause of national or international concern.

In India, lower proportion of the females and a continuous decline in their numbers has been observed since 1901 (Table 1). Until a few years ago, this decline was not very significant. However, the adoption of prenatal diagnostic techniques for sex-selection, have resulted in an alarming situation in India and it needs to be taken note by other countries - especially where strong preference for male children exists. The following regions have documented evidence of preference for male children, Bangladesh (Chowdhury et al. 1993), Canada (Krishnan 1993), China (Wen 1993, Ren 1995), India (Nath and Land 1994), Java-Bali (Soeradji and Hatmadji 1982), Jordan (El-Deen 1982), Korea (Lee and Choe 1982), Malaysia (Pong 1994), Morocco (Obermeyer 1996), Nepal (Stash 1996), Nigeria (Renne 1993), Pakistan (Irfan et al. 1984), Sri Lanka (De Silva 1993), Sudan (El-Deen 1982), Tunisia (Obermeyer 1996), Vietnam (Haughton and Haughton 1996), USA (Pebley and Westoff 1982).

In India, prenatal sex determination on commercial basis - followed by selective female feticide, was initiated around 1978 when the medical professionals became aware of standardisation of these techniques (Devi 1979). The commercial sex determining centres quickly mushroomed spreading from Northwest India to rest of the country.

Table 1: Number of females per 1000 males in India*

1901 972

1911 964

1921 955

1931 950

1941 945

1951 946

1961 941

1971 930

1981 934

1991 927

*Govt. of India census reports

Table 2: 1987 Survey: group characteristics (n=200)

Characteristics Unmarried (No.) Married (No.)

Total number 100 100 (50 males and 50 females in each group)

20-28 years 96 62

29-39 years 6 38

In 1987, we undertook a survey of 200 individuals (Table 2) to ascertain their views on different aspects of prenatal sex determination (Cheema 1987). The various reasons given for preferring a male child (Table 3) were more or less the same as have been reported in other populations of the world (Akello 1983, Lee 1982, Obermeyer 1996, Wu 1972). 50.1% consented that they would abort the pregnancy of unwanted sex. 65% of the respondents preferred to have sex determination done for their second child; while only 11.5% favoured it for the first child. 73.5% of the individuals were of the view that prenatal sex determination should be legally permitted - highlighting the underlying strong desire to have a child of particular sex, which usually is a male.

In order to check the increasing popularity of the female feticide - consequent to prenatal sex determination, the Indian Government enacted its much publicised Act: "Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994". This Act very clearly lies down that after 1st January 1996, no genetic tests can be undertaken by any institution unless it is specifically recognised for this purpose by the State Government. A specified committee is to be constituted for providing such recognition. However, most of the State Governments have done hardly anything in this direction. The sex-determining tests go on - even though not legally permitted.

In order to evaluate the impact of this Act we carried out a survey in 1997, similar to that of 1987, on 378 individuals (Table 4). The trend seen from this survey is interesting. The desire for the male child still remains. However, compared to 1987, in 1997 there is marked reduction in the percentage of people who would like to abort foetus of unwanted sex; or those believing that prenatal sex determination would help control population growth. The number of people who advocated that prenatal sex determination should be legally permitted has also significantly reduced (Table 5).

Table 3: 1987 Survey: male preference reasons (n= 200)

Reason Positive responses (%)

Old age security 26.0

Inheritance of property 22.5

Continuity of lineage 19.0

Social security 13.5

Sexual discrimination of females 12.5

Dominance of males 6.5

Table 4: 1997 Survey: group characteristics (n=378)

Group A (Students) No. Group B (Others) No.

Science 41 Employee 46

Law 48 Housewives 50

Arts 50 Teachers 47

Medicine 46 Businessmen 50

Characteristics Group A (students) Group B (others)

Total number 185 193

Age group 17-25 20-50

Percentage of males 62 54

Percentage of married ones 1 78

Table 5: Change in views on sex determination in India

1987 1997

Abort unwanted sex 50.1% 11.9%

Permit legally 73.5% 33.0%

Population control measure 70.5% 46.3%

Table 6: Trend of births in Amritsar district, Punjab, India

Year Males Females Total Females/1000 males

1990 30,804 27,205 58,009 883

1991 31,555 27,086 58,641 858

1992 31,075 26,861 57,936 864

1993 32,925 29,995 62,920 850

1994 32,176 28,406 60,582 882

1995* 23,954 19,917 43,871 831

1996 31,958 24,633 56,591 770

*(9 month data)

The figures obtained in 1997 do indicate a healthy change of perception. However, the biases, in the responses received during 1997 survey, cannot be completely ruled out because the respondents knew it well that prenatal sex determination is now legally prohibited. In any case, this is an indication of healthy change, which unfortunately, is limited to an extremely smaller proportion of the better-educated, middle-class families. It does not represent an actual change in the perception of the Indian society, as such, towards the females. This is clear from the data collected regarding the actual number of males and females born in Amritsar district (Table 6). Similar trend is seen for other cities of the State. In fact, the male preference continues unabated in all sections of the society.

Though, the desire to beget a male child is more or less a universal phenomenon, it is much more acute and of perpetual nature in India. The social down-gradation of females is also closely linked with it. In order to realise the reasons behind the perpetuation of this desire in India, one has to look into the historical perspectives (Table 7).

Table 7: Historical perspectives having bearing on male preference in India

Year Event Observations/comments

~3000 - 1500 BC Indus Valley civilisation Agricultural economy

Higher female status and their worshipping

~1500 BC Aryan inflow Pastoral economy, Male dominance

~1500 - 1000 BC Early Vedic period Introduction of "Varna" system (caste system)

Ritualism introduced

~1000 - 600 BC Late Vedic period "Varna" system more strong

Ritualism supreme, Female down-gradation

~600 BC Jainism; Budhism 1st cultural revolt to Vedic philosophy

~200 BC - 200 AD Manusamriti Revivalism of Vedic values

(Vedic literature) Female subservielant to male legally enshrined

~300 - 600 AD "Gupta" period Routing of Jainism and Budhism

Ritualistic Vedic culture spreads

~700 AD "Sati" doctrine Peak of female down-gradation

~400 - 1300 AD "Puranas" Propagation of Vedic values (Vedic literature)

~1000 - 1300 AD "Nath" & "Sidh" philosophy 2nd cultural revolt against Vedic values, caste

system and female down-gradation

~1200 - 1500 AD "Bhakti" movements Condemnation of ritualistic Vedic culture

Exalted status to female

~1600 - 1700 AD "Ramachritmanas" Uplifting of Vedic values

Females equated with untouchables

~1757 - 1947 British rule Caste hierarchy suited British

"Sati" banned in 1929

20th century Satellite technology Revival of Vedic values through multi-media

Almost all pre-historic civilisations including that of Indus Valley worshipped female Goddesses. Agriculture having been discovered by the females, remained for long their exclusive occupation. It resulted in economic and social supremacy of the females in the primitive agrarian societies. This social supremacy gradually shifted to the males in those societies who adopted pastoral economy - as it depended more on physical endowments (Chattopadhyaya 1973). The influx of Indo-European Aryans into the Indian sub-continent began around 1500 BC. The Aryans had pastoral economy, followed patriarchal system, though their females had high social status. Around that time, the Indus Valley civilisation had more or less disintegrated and the local populations consisted primarily of primitive agrarian societies or tribals with usually female dominance or matriarchal systems. The Aryans, in order to prevent the socio-cultural impact of the native system of female-supremacy on their male-supreme patriarchal system, initiated a series of social, cultural and religious measures to aculturalise the natives. These measures, spread over several centuries, ensured complete unchallenged supremacy of the Aryans over the locals. Such measures that ensured strict social-hierarchy in the society led to steep reduction in the social status of females.

These measures included introduction of the "Caste System", known as "Varna System'". It initially divided the society into two categories, i.e., rulers and workers. Gradually, it became more and more rigid and four distinct categories emerged (Table 8). It was initiated during the early Vedic period and became more pronounced during the late Vedic period. These periods saw the initiation of several types of rituals and religious ceremonies; emergence of several new Gods and dominance of the Brahminical cult. All religious and social ceremonies became extremely complicated. Sacrifices, rituals and caste segregation in the society became the norm. The working classes, which primarily consisted of the locals, were reduced to untouchables. The females and the untouchables were considered equivalent for several religious and ritualistic ceremonies. This equivalency lead to the significant down-gradation of the status of females. In many ritualistic ceremonies, especially in "Tantrik meditations" (Chattopadhyaya 1973), the status of the female was reduced to the level of sex object only. This was a continuous process of cultural transformation, supported by strong religious sanctions, hammering in continuously over centuries - that females are inferiors.

Table 8: "Varna" system introduced by Aryans in India

Caste group Role in society

Brahmin Priests

Kashatriya Rulers

Vaish Traders

Shudra Workers

The first cultural revolt against the complexities and ritualistic culture of the Aryans was the emergence of two new religions around 600 BC - Jainism and Budhism. Both these religions flourished at the cost of Vedic religion. However, during the first stage of revivalism of Vedic religion which started around 200 BC to 200 AD, these religions were pushed in background. It was during this period that the famous scripts like "Manusamriti" and "Bhagwadgita" are believed to have been written.

"Manusamriti" accorded the required legal sanctity to strict caste hierarchy and female subordination. It placed numerous restrictions on the females and the sphere of their action was limited to four walls of the home only. The sole purpose of the female's existence was legally limited to serving the males (Table 9; Dass 1962, Chattopadhyaya 1973).

Table 9: "Manusamriti" (~200 BC - 400 AD) : The foundation of whole orthodox system of HINDU Law (Das 1962)

"When creating females, the creator allotted to women a love of bed, of their dishonesty, malice and bad conduct"

"Nothing must be done independently by a woman even in her own house"

"A wife may be superseded by another wife if she is bearing daughters only"

"If a lower caste man approaches a higher caste maiden he is to be put to death immediately, but if a higher caste woman approaches a lower caste man she is only to be confined in her home"

The second revivalism of the Aryan values was during 300-600 AD - the period of "Gupta dynasty". During this period, Jainism and Budhism were more or less completely routed. It also saw the emergence of feudal set-up, strong entrenchment of the temple nexus, and revival of a highly ritualistic society. Strict caste system and female subordination was advocated; and severest punishments were inflicted on the defaulters. The rigidity of caste-based categories and with it the closely associated female down-gradation, was at its peak around 700 AD when "Sati" doctrine became the norm. In this ceremony, a widow is supposed to burn herself alive with her dead husband to achieve salvation. The process of rejuvenation of Aryan values or Brahminical cult continued up to 1000-1300 AD.

India, thus had a society in which the sole objective of the female's life - which was religiously, socially and culturally accepted - was to serve her husband, to give birth to his sons and to look after his sons. This system ensured that generation after generation and century after century the females would continue to serve the males with utmost sincerity and while doing so also feel privileged.

Another round of cultural revolt, again with base amongst the working classes, was the emergence of "Nath" and "Sidh" philosophy during 1000-1300 AD and the "Bhakti" movement around 1200-1500 AD. All of them denounced the caste system and gave exalted position to the females. Another attempt of revivalism of Brahminical cult, where the females are downgraded, is obvious from the works of Tulsidas (around 1600 AD) who compared women with lowly-born and animals (Singh 1997). The caste hierarchy also suited the Britishers for their rule in India.

The last round of revivalism of Vedic values is now - during the present century, through the aid of multi-media and satellite technologies. In India, at present, the most popular serials on the national television channel are the epics of late Vedic period (~1000-600 BC) and of Gupta dynasty (~300-600 AD) - some of which do depict the worshipping of females. But which female? She is the one who dedicates her whole life for the service of her husband or her sons. Simultaneously, vulgar exposure of female nudity in the film songs and advertisements highlight the females as only sex symbols. Naturally, the subtle message that impregnates the young mind is - supremacy of the males and in-built subordination of the females.

Unless concerted efforts are made, i) to break the existing caste system, ii) to abolish the dowry menace, iii) to bring in the cultural consciousness highlighting the importance of female as equal partners, and iv) to stop the medievalisation of the present generation, the desire for a male child would continue to perpetuate in India.


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