Female feticide is the termination of the life of a fetus within the womb on the grounds that its sex is female. Female feticide is thus the conjunction of two ethical evils: abortion and gender bias. A fetus’s right to life outweighs the parents' rights to wealth, pride, or convenience, whether the fetus is male or female. The term "sex selective abortion" is preferable to the term feticide, since it points to both of the ethical evils inherent in this practice.
Female feticide has replaced female infanticide as a means to reduce or eliminate female offspring. In societies where women's status is very low, many female fetuses are rejected. Thus, perhaps 300 million of the total number of aborted female fetuses have been victims of female feticide. This number is based on a predicted ratio of boy-to-girl births and does not take into account the male and female fetuses that are aborted for non-gender-based reasons.
The practice of female feticide denies the purpose of all human life—salvation through transformation in the image of God. An aborted fetus is denied this transformation in its fullest sense. Therefore, the Orthodox Church, which exists "for the life of the world," has an ethical responsibility to denounce the practice of female feticide, to persuade national political and economic leaders to oppose female feticide by understanding and counteracting its economic, societal, and religious causes, and to care for those who suffer from its effects.
Many people groups, both eastern and western, have a history of infanticide. For thousands of years, parents have exterminated baby girls by poisoning, strangling, or burying them alive. This practice decreased in the Greco-Roman world as Christianity flourished¹ and is nearly non-existent in the West today.
In countries such as China and India, the practice of infanticide continued into the 20th century. However, the 1970s saw a dramatic drop in the girl-to-boy ratio in India, when abortion was legalized and ultrasound technology enabled families to determine the sex of their child by the fourth month of pregnancy. By 2005 the ratio slipped to 814 girls for every 1,000 boys, as opposed to the natural rate of 952 girls for every 1,000 boys.
From the time ultrasound technology was introduced in China, approximately 50 million girl fetuses have been victims of feticide. In India the number is estimated at 43 million. Approximately seven million more are credited to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and South Korea. Because China and India account for 40% of the world’s population, an imbalance in these two countries has a profound impact on global population statistics.²
Case Study: India³
Traditional Practices of India
The life of a woman in India is often marked by such disrespect that some feel it is better for the family, and even for the baby girl, that she not be born. Perhaps the greatest factor in this is the practice of dowries. One slogan of the female feticide industry is "better 500 rupees now [for an abortion] rather than 50,000 rupees later [for a dowry]." The first amount equals about $11 (USD), the second about $1,100. India has a longstanding tradition of requiring a wife's family to support her financially in her marriage. This begins with a dowry of extraordinary sums of cash, gold, and goods.
Defenders of this system point out that a dowry takes the place of inheritance, which some women in India do not receive. However, in many cases the groom's parents take possession of the dowry and do not set any of it aside for the bride's future use. Furthermore, the bride's family's responsibilities extend to further supporting the new family in substantial ways, beyond the initial dowry. Some Indian castes even require a wife’s family to cover her funeral expenses. Some brides have been rejected by the groom's families and even killed because their families did not meet the groom's family's expectations for dowry. All these cultural and financial factors act as disincentives for Indian families to permit their girl babies to be born.
Effects of Female Feticide in India
Female feticide has adversely affected Indian society. 36% of men between the ages of 15 and 45 in the wealthy state of Haryana are unmarried. This prevalence of unmarried men has a destabilizing effect that counteracts the stabilizing and enriching effects of families in a society. The poorer of these unmarried men seek brides from India's economically challenged eastern states, and wives obtained in this way tend to be exploited and in some cases passed on from one husband to the next.
The sex imbalance in India will have an increasingly destabilizing effect on a consumer of U.S. nuclear and other military technology. India's economy promises to continue growing rapidly in the future, as currently thriving industries such as information technology grow and expand throughout India. It remains to be seen whether India's moral character will keep pace with its economic growth.
Who is Responsible?
This ethical problem goes along with economic growth in many cases. It is the wealthy families that can afford ultrasounds and abortions. If unchecked, the problem will grow in proportion to the Indian economy.
The parties responsible in this genocide include parents, Indian society, Indian government and religious leaders, worldwide consumers, trade partners and allies of India, and corporations such as GE who supply many ultrasound machines that are used primarily for purposes of feticide.
Global Effects of Female Feticide
All countries where female feticide is practiced are at risk for being caught in a vicious circle. Female feticide leads to low female-to-male ratios, which in turn perpetuates low status of women. Conversely, low status of women leads to more female feticide.
Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, points out that one of the ways Christianity revolutionized the status of women in Greco-Roman society was by opposing all infanticide. Stark cites the social scientific work of Guttentag and Secord "linking cross-cultural variations in the status of women to cross-cultural variations in sex ratios. ... To the extent that males outnumber females, women will be enclosed in repressive sex roles as men treat them as 'scarce goods.' Conversely, to the extent that females outnumber males ... women will enjoy relatively greater power and freedom." As the ratio of women to men increased, women came to enjoy higher status in the society as a whole, not only amongst the growing proportion of Greco-Romans who were Christians.&sup4;
If an increase in ratio of women to men brings higher status to women, a decrease in this ratio risks the opposite effect. Thus, the decrease in the boy-to-girl birth ratio, itself the result of the low status of women in Indian society, risks a sharp further decrease in the status of women from bad to worse. The danger is a vicious circle bringing continually greater female feticide and lowering of the status of women in Indian society.
All countries where female feticide is practiced are at risk for falling into this vicious circle. Therefore, it is especially urgent for Orthodox Christians to respond to female feticide.
Response to Female Feticide
There are a number of possible responses to the worldwide problem of female feticide. The most fundamental response is to decry the practice of abortion and the circumstances that lead women to resort to it as their best option. The hypocrisy of abortion rights advocates is revealed by their denouncing of the female feticide. It is as if a woman's "rights" to an abortion depend on her motives. If she chooses an abortion for financial, social, or personal reasons, she is supported. However, if her choice is gender-based, it is condemned. The very naming of gender-based abortion as female feticide reveals a double standard. Abortion is supported as a fundamental right, but that right is revoked when it coincides with gender discrimination.
In India, a proposed nationwide network of orphanages would take in unwanted girl babies. This is a merciful response to the symptom of the problem, but it does not seek to treat the problem itself. Some radiologists and obstetricians in India oppose female feticide vocally, while others oppose it silently.
What distinguishes female feticide from the problem of abortion in general is a lack of due respect, status, and freedom to women in society. Therefore, the Orthodox Christian response to female feticide must involve changing the way society envisions the relationship of women and men in the home and in society. As women's status increases, female feticide will decrease, and increasing the status of women will likewise decrease the practice of female feticide.
1. The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press (1997), p. 128.
2. "India's imbalance of sexes," in The Washington Times, February 26, 2007.
3. Taken from "India's imbalance of sexes," in The Washington Times, February 26, 2007.
4. The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press (1997), p. 102.
A four part series in the Washington Times:
- The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press (1997)
- May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons, Elizabeth Bumiller.
- Woman, An Endangered Species?, Mary Scaria.