Joan Bakewell: What kind of society routinely aborts its girls?

The wealthy and educated are the most guilty. The rich can afford to bribe a doctor
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The doctor at the clinic where you've gone for the test signs his report in red ink, or, if the news is good, blue ink. Such is the subterfuge doctors in India employ to alert their pregnant patients to the sex of their child.

Red ink indicates a girl, and without a word being spoken the prognosis is understood. The mother wants a boy and will choose to abort a female foetus.

It's reckoned that some half a million girls have been aborted each year for the past 20 years, that's 10 million girls, whose mothers wanted only a boy child. This is possible because of a hideous collision of primitive tribal preferences and high-tech Western technology. And the whole thing could get worse.

This week, for the first time, a doctor has gone to jail in Delhi for two years for revealing the sex of a foetus and then aborting it. Gender testing of foetuses was made illegal in India in 1994. Whenever cases are brought to court, either witnesses withdraw or sentences are laughably slight. Now the lack of balance is beginning to show in overall demographics: for every 1,000 men in India, there are only 927 women. Laws that tinker with the medical end of the situation are, of course, important, but what needs to be understood and challenged is a whole culture that regards having a daughter as a disaster.

It is easy to assume that it is the ignorance of peasant communities locked in ancient ways of living that is to blame. There is, after all, no arena of behaviour in which traditional peoples differ so much from modern societies than in their treatment of women. It is the yawning gulf that keeps women confined to the home, uses then as agricultural labour, denies them education and equal rights, and barters them for dowries when they reach marriageable age. It is the dowry system, officially outlawed in India but still deeply entrenched, that makes bearing daughters such a disaster.

Indian newspapers, over the years, have regularly reported supposed "accidents" that happen in homes where the daughter-in-law's dowry hasn't been large enough to satisfy the greed of the groom's family. In such a culture, the prospect of having a sequence of daughters threatens the economic stability of the whole family. The burden of having to trade away goats and cattle, or these days television sets and fridges, to secure a husband is insupportable. How, they must wonder, can they break out of the vicious circle.

You would suppose it is the wealthy and educated who would be most inclined to do so. But you would be wrong. They are the most guilty. The rich can afford whatever it costs to find and bribe a doctor, and the educated classes are the ones fully familiar with scanning techniques. They are the most guilty of aborting daughters. In affluent north Delhi in 2004, for every 1,000 boys born there were only 762 girls. On average, in the rest of India, the ratio of girls is falling steadily but not to such an extent: for every 1,000 boys up to the age of six, the number of girls dropped from 962 in 1981 to 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. The very people who should know better are encouraging this pernicious system where they should be leading its condemnation.

When I was in China in the 1980s, it faced a population explosion on a gigantic scale. Hence the "one family, one child" policy was proclaimed from huge hoardings in the streets of big cities. When I asked on the quiet how it operated it, I was told you could choose to have more than one child, but for every new birth, you actually lost social status and benefits, you were moved to less congenial housing and generally treated as undesirable. Even so, some families went ahead. The issue of child gender was never mentioned, but must surely have figured.

It would be wrong to think this is a transitional phase until India and China become more like us. Clinics in America that serve their Indian and Chinese communities are already helping couples by a variety of techniques to select and abort. In July 2005, a new technique, called Baby Gender Monitor, was launched in the United States. It provides, at a modest cost, a test that it is claimed is 99.9 per cent accurate in diagnosing a baby's sex at just five weeks. The foetus at that time is just half-an-inch long, and the test analyses the DNA taken from a drop of the mother's blood. Sex identifying is set to get easier and easier.

Where does that leave those of us in favour of a woman's right to choose? Can we legitimately deplore the bias against girls in the East, while claiming total freedom for the West? Isn't there something incongruous about regretting the abortion rate as it operates in India while defending abortion in this country?

I believe we can make such a case. Abortion in Britain is there to deal with abnormalities of the embryo or foetus and to prevent the birth of a baby that is not wanted to a woman who never intended to get pregnant in the first place. This is not a case of sex discrimination in the womb. In India, the issue goes far deeper than that of tests and abortions. It resides in whether, and exactly how, a culture values its women.

The West has come a long way through numerous struggles to establish a semblance of sexual equality: vast parts of the globe haven't even begun to do so. There are millions of women who envy our freedom and independence. Call me a cultural imperialist if you like, but ours is a value system I'd like to see spreading around the world.