In a disturbing fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, the government of India has suspended certain rules that govern the ban on prenatal sex testing and disclosure of sex of foetuses until June 30 due to the ongoing public health emergency. Experts fear the move may cause a spike in sex-selective abortions in India.
As per the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Rules, 1996, all ultrasound clinics are required to maintain detailed records of women who come in for prenatal foetal scans. This data is then submitted to local health bodies. Those against the strict rules regarding sex testing in India have previously raised concerns regarding the additional distress and time consumed in maintaining such records.
In the wake of the public health emergency posed by COVID-19 pandemic, however, the ministry of health has decided to relax these rules in an effort to save time and increase the speed of processing patients. As per an April 4 notification issued by the ministry, ultrasound clinics need not maintain such detailed records until June 30, The Telegraph reported.
The move has raised concerns from gender activists and politicians who claim the relaxation of regulations might exacerbate illegal or sex-selective abortions in India.
As per data provided by the government in 2018, 63 million women in India were statistically "missing" while 21 million girls were "unwanted". Yet another study published Lancet in 2018 found that 239,000 girls under the age of 5five died due to "gender-biased neglect" in the years 2000-2005.
A prior study published in Lancet in 2017 showed that an estimated 15.6 million abortions were performed in India in 2015.
This translates to an abortion rate of 47 per 1,000 women aged 15–49. The study conducted jointly by researchers at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai; the Population Council, New Delhi; and the New York-based Guttmacher Institute found that slightly fewer than one in four abortions are provided in healthcare centers.
Ultrasound clinics are part of essential services and many such as CPM politburo member Brinda Karat felt that the move would lead to undocumented misuse by clinic owners as well as parents.
Karat wrote to Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday, questioning the "arbitrary" move.
"Suspending the rule means clinics need not produce any records till June 30. This could be misused by unscrupulous sections to conduct sex determination tests freely...Suspension of the (rules) may lead to sabotage of the law under the guise of the situation created by Covid-19," she wrote.
CPIM-L member and All India Progressive Women's Association President Kavita Krishnan also shared her outrage on Twitter.
The Health Ministry has suspended the ban on Sex determination tests for the period of the Covid-19 pandemic! So the pandemic will mean a free hand to sex selective abortion! Seriously @drharshvardhan? @narendramodi महामारी में बेटी नहीं बचाना है?! https://t.co/eyELwr9CFL — Kavita Krishnan (@kavita_krishnan) April 8, 2020
Others also criticised the move on Twitter.
In a surprise move Health Ministry suspended rules governing sex determination citing the COVID 19 pandemic. Could give unscrupulous clinics a three-month free-for-all window to do what they please with no scrutiny even on record.https://t.co/uVkRLzBt0o — barkha deva (@barkhad) April 8, 2020