Sex-selective Abortion and Female Infanticide: A Discussion from the 1980s

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.


In 1978, clinics in India started offering amniocentesis to detect “foetal genetic abnormalities.” According to Patricia Jeffery, Roger Jeffery and Shahid Perwez, however, the medical procedure was overwhelmingly used to determine sex, and terminate “unwanted” female foetuses.

In 1981, Barbara D Miller published The Endangered Sex: Neglect of Female Children in Rural North India and offered a historical and cultural approach to investigate unequal sex ratios in India. A year later, in 1982, Pranab Bardhan reviewed this book in EPW and pointed out that while Miller had collated several important ethnographic studies on dowry and marriage, she could have used “more detailed and reliable quantitative data” on female labour participation in the waged workforce. In the same year, Vimal Balasubramanyan also wrote an article focusing on the practice of sex-selective abortion, and argued that it is was condoned by the medical establishment and the pro-population-control government.

Dharma Kumar responded to Bardhan, Balasubramanyan and Miller’s book by saying that while sex-selective abortion would reduce the number of females born, this would make them more “valuable.” Specifically, female children would be better looked after and would live longer lives. Leela Dube refuted Kumar’s claim, and argued that Kumar’s argument is based on several linked assumptions that were “extremely naive.” Balasubramanyan responded to Kumar as well, arguing that Kumar’s analysis strengthened her point that the medical–technical establishment is assisting in making the unequal system appear “natural, normal, and rational.”

L S Vishwanath responded to all the authors, arguing that sex-selective abortion should be examined in terms of class and caste dimensions as well as the particular groups that resort to it. Roger Jeffery and Patricia Jeffery, in their article, supported aspects of Kumar and Vishwanath’s argument by presenting data drawn from Bijnor and Moradabad districts.

Finally, Kumar responded to Dube by stating that those in favour of banning sex determination should prove that other ways of changing the practice are not feasible or desirable. Dube replied to Kumar, arguing that cultural and economic factors are enmeshed and not autonomous. It should also not be assumed that the social system cannot be changed.

A few other works that are broadly related to this discussion:

  1. Beti Bachao: Government’s Efforts to Eradicate Female Infanticide and Sex-Selective Abortion are Inadequate, EPW Engage, 2019
  2. Tackling Female Infanticide, Sheela Rani Chunkath and Venkatesh Athreya, 2000
  3. Sex-Selective Abortion in Haryana, R Usha, Sayeed Unisa and Sucharita Pujari, 2007
  4. Female Infanticide in Tamil Nadu: Some Evidence, Sheela Rani Chunkath and V B Athreya, 1997
  5. Fighting Female Foeticide: Growing Greed and Shrinking Child Sex Ratio, Ashish Bose, 2001 
  6. Female Infanticide and Gender in Punjab, Yogesh Snehi, 2003

Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at with the subject line—"Patriarchy and Medical Technology"

Curated by Abhishek Shah []