Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I unwillingly support your right to make stupid decisions...

As a skeptic, one of the hardest things to do is watch someone make a bad decision. Of course, as a skeptic I know that 'bad' is a subjective term that is individual to me, based on my culture, upbringing, friends and various other personal biases.

Plus, I know that freedom means that everyone gets to be free to make whatever decision they want. Even stupid people. When it hurts even more is when people use science to implement stupid decisions.

Take, for example, this couple in India. At 72, she claims to be the oldest woman in the world to give birth. She had twins after a series of fertility treatments which cost her and her husband their entire life savings. It was a very difficult pregnancy; she had to be on bed rest for a full 8 months. Delivery was no piece of cake either - the babies were born a month premature, had low birth weight, and riding full-sized rickshaws.

The couple already had two children, so why was this pregnancy so important?

For the couple, the desire to have a son was most important because they wanted to carry on the family name. They know that their son may never be able to care for them in the traditional way because of the age gap.
This couple is basically using science to fulfill a tradition, not thinking about the welfare of their own child. Even if they do survive to raise these kids to adulthood, they can't afford to do it. They certainly can't afford two. I think I feel sorriest for the female twin. She was basically an unwanted surprise in all this.

Unfortunately, sex discrimination is rampant in India, and it starts in the womb. It's actually illegal in India to learn the sex of an unborn child because of the high rates of abortions of female fetuses. A couple of years ago, Lancet published a study which talked about low sex ratio in India. Here's a brief excerpt:

Prenatal sex determination followed by selective abortion of female fetuses is the most plausible explanation for the low sex ratio at birth in India. Women most clearly at risk are those who already have one or two female children. Based on conservative assumptions, the practice accounts for about 0.5 million missing female births yearly, translating over the past 2 decades into the abortion of some 10 million female fetuses.

Wow. Ok, so that's messed up. And this is with sex identification being illegal. If you're going to have a kid anyway, it shouldn't matter whether it's a girl or a boy. It shouldn't. Unfortunately, it does. Culturally, socially, financially, having a female child has a different impact in India than a male child. (There are a lot of spiders that need killing in India, I think...) And as much as I hate it, I have to agree that we have to allow those families to make their own decisions. I mean, would it really be better to force people to have a female child they didn't want?

I think the Indian government is wrong to deny people the ability to find out the sex of their child, but I'm not happy I feel that way. First, it's not working. People are still figuring it out, in spite of hefty fines for individuals and the risk of suspension for doctors. Second, before it was technologically possible to find out the sex of a baby, it was very common for parents to kill a daughter after birth. Better to abort an unwanted fetus than to murder an unwanted baby.

It's tough for me to support the 70-something couple to have twin kids that they can't afford to raise. But it's their decision to make. The other option is letting the government (or, worse, the church) decide who can be allowed to have kids.

The answer is education. Yes, it's wrong to discriminate against female children. But suppressing knowledge or denying them access to the technology to keep them and their children safe and healthy isn't the answer. Continuing education about women, about women's rights and blowing away the ancient cultural biases through knowledge is the only way this problem goes away. Plus, provide women opportunities for work outside the home. Giving women the ability to earn money serves the dual purpose of providing additional income for the family and making them more than just dowry-needing brood mares to the family. Less Ganesh, more Green, maybe?

What do you guys think?