India is all the rage these days. From high fashion to high tech to the movies made in “Bollywood,” India has finally made it to the world stage. The coverage of Everything India is so ubiquitous that one is tempted to pass by India-related articles and move on to new global frontiers. Yet a recent piece in the New York Times—“Indian Gov't to Raise Abandoned Girls,” February 18, 2007—is one that readers should note. This is not an article about the flashy new middle class in India but a story about the future of some of the world's most vulnerable persons in an immense and overwhelming country.
The article relates that the Indian government plans—in an effort to stem the tide of sex-selective abortions—to set up a series of orphanages in regional health districts to take in and raise unwanted baby girls. While both India and the world acknowledge that sex selection is a crisis of epic proportions, one that has already seriously tipped the gender balance to favor boys, the laws to ban the practice in India have so far been ineffective.
Girls in India have, for many hundreds of years, been seen as a severe economic burden on families who must provide a dowry for the girl at the time of marriage. In addition, there is a certain elevated social status afforded to having a boy (particularly in the thousands of villages of India) that reveals the low value placed on females in many parts of the country. These are not attitudes that are so easily whisked away with mere statutes. And, even where laws exist, the will to enforce them has been lacking. The Times reports that only one physician has ever been convicted under the national laws banning sex-selective abortion, which were passed in 1994.
India's orphanage plan is called the cradle scheme. According to Renuka Chowdhury, the minister of state for women and child development, it has already been funded in the coming national budget. Precise figures on cost and a time frame for set-up are lacking; nevertheless, it is a beautiful example of how—in a world that prizes stark efficiency, the supremacy of personal autonomy, and the purported “rationality of utilitarianism”—a country of a billion people can take a collective stand to protect the most vulnerable in its midst. India is by no means perfect; Chowdhury herself, obsessed with population control, once sought to ban women and men with more than two children from contesting Parliamentary and state elections. There are many more in India who see abortion as a solution to the country's stifling population problem. But it nonetheless seems a significant step in the right direction.
The article quoted Chowdhury: “What we are saying to the people is have your children, don't kill them. And if you don't want a girl child, leave her to us.” When asked if setting up such a system of orphanages might encourage even more abandonment of baby girls, the minister replied: “It doesn't matter. It is better than killing them.”
Although even pro-abortion academics and politicians in the United States would likely condemn sex-selective abortion as morally impermissible (although it is hard to see on what grounds, if abortion is a fundamental right), skeptics and cynics will still say that the cradle scheme is too ambitious, too optimistic, and too inefficient. Who will pay for all these children? Should a developing country waste its resources on babies who are unwanted anyway? What will be the social impact of hundreds of thousands of girls brought up by the state?
India has its simple answer: We don't know. We don't know for how long and how much we will be able to pay for this program (but we are committed to trying); we don't know the impact of spending resources on unwanted babies (but we know it is not a waste); we don't know the social implications of girls growing up under the care of Mother India (but it is better than killing them). India's plan is a model of inefficiency—and simultaneously a valiant stand for the value of human life. As a person of Indian origin, I know full well that we Indians love to joke about our ethnic inefficiencies: how we must bargain for everything, how cows slow down traffic in Mumbai, how taxicabs take you everywhere else first before taking you where you need to go. But the cradle scheme is an inefficiency in which we—and all humanity—can rejoice. It is an inefficiency for justice, an inefficiency for the sake of another.
We have in the cradle scheme more proof that moral relativism is as impotent as we suspected it was. India, after all, is a Hindu country whose fabric incorporates Judeo-Christian principles but is not dominated by them. While it is true that Indian culture has permitted and encouraged sex selection (by devaluing girls and strapping poor families with the intolerable burden of the dowry system), it is also true that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others within the government are actively working to correct this atrocity. Even a country as diverse as India can arrive at a conclusion that is true: A baby girl's life is just as valuable as a baby boy's. “The Gospel of Life is not for believers alone: It is for everyone. The issue of life and its defense and promotion is not a concern of Christians alone,” wrote John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. India, in spite of her diversity, has reached this same end because truth is the common end of human reason.
Moreover, India's plan to protect her baby girls demonstrates the moral power of a representative democracy. In an authentic democracy, where the person forms the fundamental precious substance of community, the possibility exists to protect a newborn girl for her own sake—even at the cost of the temporal goods of society. Her totalitarian neighbor to the north—the behemoth that is China—is a classic contrast. In China, where the boy-to-girl ratio is even worse than in India, the insatiable drive for forced population control and the elevated social status of males have combined to provide a deadly social backdrop for an unborn child audacious enough to be a female.
Of course, even in democracies the truth of the transcendence of the person—over and above the community of which she is a part—is being eroded. Those of us in the West who admire the symbolism and sacrifice to which India will commit herself with regional orphanages must ask ourselves what justifies such a stand. Would such a radical idea as the cradle scheme be possible with a political system that was not rooted in the metaphysical reality of the sanctity of human life? The transparency of democracy—often taken for granted and yet so critical to our way of life—allows India to admit to the horrifying problem of sex selection and demand a just solution with accountability not only to her own people but to the world. Are we willing to fight the intellectual war of ideas for the core of an authentic democracy—the inviolability of the human person?
There is yet another lesson to be learned from India: Efficiency, tidiness, economic savings, and the other components of the utilitarian calculus are worthless if they dare to sacrifice the human person for the good of the many. In May 2000, India joined her rival China as a country with one billion persons. The news was announced with both fanfare and trepidation, with an official one-billionth designee—a girl. Her name was Astha (Hindi for faith). Despite its overpopulation problem, India has resisted, with optimism and ingenuity, the coercive policies of her communist neighbor; the cradle scheme reminds the people of India and those of the West that a solution to social problems does not have to begin with death. Whenever a society, despite its many imperfections, makes a public commitment to protect the vulnerable, it comes ever closer to its true purpose—to become a community of persons.
Time will tell if India's new social and ethical commitment to newborn baby girls comes to fruition. We can only hope that, as India inevitably transforms into a developed country, she will inspire us with an even deeper commitment to human life infused by religion, rooted in reason, and manifested by a democratic political system.
Ashley K. Fernandes, M.D., is an assistant professor of pediatrics and community health at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University.