Doctors need to speak up now

Jan 23, 2013, 07:22 IST | Ranjona Banerji

Ranjona BanerjiI attended a workshop last week, organised by Population First and IPAS on the problems that women who want an abortion are facing because of the tremendous dangers of gender selection.

The horrors of our skewed gender ratios and the apparent impunity with which families and doctors were indulging in gender selection (the new term I believe for the earlier and more horrifying female foeticide) have resulted in a slew of measures to protect the unborn girl child. Unfortunately, this means that doctors can be wary about abortions (medical termination of pregnancies) in general and this means that women’s reproductive rights and health get affected.

There are doctors who fight against medical malpractices, but perhaps they need to be more vocal at times like this. Representation Pic

It’s a thin line and one that has been discussed before. But here are two takeaways: whether it is abortions or gender selection, it is women who are blamed and who suffer. And, none of this would happen without the complicity of doctors. Both seem like self-evident truths. But while the issue of women is being handled one way or another (or attempts are being made by the government and by activists), when it comes to doctors, it’s a whole other story. No one wants to take them on. They are at the forefront of sex selection, were at the forefront of gender-related abortions and are now at the forefront of refusing abortions to women in general.

The story is familiar - political patronage and money but underlying all that of course is the patriarchy that rules our society. It’s a theme that one cannot run away from and every day, since the night of December 16, 2012, we have been reminded of how difficult it is to be a woman and have rights in India. Does that sound harsh? I’m glad. Because running away from it is not going to make the problem go away.

A girl gets molested on a school bus by a conductor in Mumbai. She’s four years old. The president of the School Bus Owners’ Association passes the buck to the school and gets into an argument over responsibility and female attendants. A policeman’s daughter is harassed by the police taking down the FIR after she was molested by several men, also in Mumbai. Rapes and assaults are being reported regularly across the country some as horrific as the gang-rape of December 16 2012. The public clamour for strong punishment continues while the larger problems of investigation and harassment of the victim by the police continue.

I have not noticed too many doctors coming out and discussing how the two-finger test for rape victims - to determine their sexual experience - has no relevance in a rape case. Besides, it only further victimises the victim. Similarly, it would be good if more doctors told us how a skewed male-female ratio is dangerous for society. Or, if doctors accepted that women who want or need abortions disconnected from gender selection should not be discriminated against. Indeed, if doctors had not colluded with families who wanted only boys, the laws against sonography machines and the idea of silent observers would not have materialised at all.

Even better, if the medical associations took their oaths seriously and de-licensed doctors who practise gender selection. Yes, there are doctors who fight against medical malpractices, but perhaps they need to be more vocal at times like this.

The morality and patriarchy which lies at the foundation of our society are no longer doing us any favours, especially when it comes to women. Over and over again, religious and society leaders demonstrate how little they understand gender equality, the latest being a Sunni scholar in Kerala who tells us that male-female equality is against nature. Doctors, like the police, belong to this society and evidently no Hippocratic Oath can take the chauvinist out of the medic. The only hope if there is any is to keep talking about this and keep the battle going. We stopped a few years ago and we paid the price.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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