A strong socio-cultural preference for boys is blamed for most of the sex-selection in India, where dowry makes daughters expensive. But as science journalist Mara Hvistendahl points out in her book Unnatural Selection, sex-selective abortion is not a Third World problem brought about by a patriarchal love for boys. Instead, as Hvistendahl explains, the practice emanates from coercive ‘family planning’ programmes instituted by population alarmists and UN agencies during the Cold War era. A growing fear that more hungry babies would grow up and turn to communism created what Hvistendahl calls ‘the monster of sex determination in Asia’ and which, combined with a whole host of other population policies, led to hugely skewed gender ratios in India, China and South Korea.
A serious drive to cull populations in countries such as India resulted in the draconian and deeply unpopular sterilisation camps in the 1970s. Yet even after ruining the lives of millions of people, and almost certainly contributing to Indira Gandhi’s subsequent election defeat, the steep rise in sterilisation had little impact on the overall trajectory of India’s population growth. As a result, the holders of the purse strings at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) demanded greater reductions.
In the Sixties, when population control became a high priority, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich was commissioned to write his book, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich suggested that the world would not be able to provide enough food to keep up with population growth, but he did offer a solution: ‘If a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males, then population-control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.’
The answer was already in the offing. In the mid-1960s, a leading American embryologist and biochemist from the Population Council, Sheldon Segal, showed doctors at India’s top medical school, AIIMS, how to perform amniocentesis tests and pre-natal sex scans. In India, the early sex-selective abortions were performed openly in government hospitals where doctors helped to identify the sex and abort the foetus if it was a girl. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and abetted by non-governmental organisations such as the Population Council and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, sex-selection continued with the full backing of the West. It was only in the Seventies, when India’s feminist groups began making a noise about sex-selection, that the authorities took notice and banned it in 1978 in favour of yet more ethical policies.