Saturday, March 13, 2010

Little Girls, Spotted Owls and Kids with Down Syndrome

Over 100 million baby girls are missing. Don't bother searching - they're gone forever. Victims of what The Economist magazine - in its March 6th cover story - calls gendercide, these babies were detected to be female while still in the womb and then selectively aborted because their parents preferred sons.

It is a hideous reality, particularly here in North India, where the sex ratio in some areas (Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan are particularly bad) is 120 boys to 100 girls. And the long term social consequences of an abnormal number of unattached men is frightening to consider.

But I'm thinking a little more widely here - not just about the horror of targeting little girls, but the horror of targeting any baby, for any reason.

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Women have long been constrained by biology. We are the ones who get pregnant. And children, even when they are wanted and planned and eagerly anticipated, are still disruptive and demanding. For women with health issues, pregnancy can be life-threatening. For poor women, another child may tip the balance into misery and chaos. And for anyone with career ambitions, having a baby almost always means postponing them.

So legal, safe abortion seemed like an answer to prayer - the perfect solution to an unwanted pregnancy.  But many things are not what they seem, and many great ideas turn out, years later, to be not so great.

We can  seldom predict the long term ripple effect of our actions. Surely no feminist marching for the "right to choose" back in the 60's and 70's could ever have imagined that so many women would take that right and use it to kill their daughters. Surely no feminist could have imagined that the right to abortion would end up skewing the sex ratio to such an extent that even sociologists, economists and government bureaucrats are alarmed.

Because the killing was supposed to be random. Abortion was meant to be an equal opportunity destroyer. Any baby - black or brown or white, rich or poor, male or female - was supposed to have had as good a chance as any other of being targeted. The only criteria was supposed to be wantedness.

So what a shock it must have been for pro-choice activists to find that cutting across all categories - the rich, the poor, the black, brown and white, the male, the female - little girls weren't wanted. And in such large numbers that sex ratios -  a force of nature which even self-corrects for boys' greater susceptibility to infant disease - were massively affected.

You might be forgiven for thinking that pro-choice feminists would shake their heads and sigh and leave it at that. After all, the fight was never for abortion - it was for choice. And if women are choosing something I don't happen to like, well, that's their choice. Right?


Pro-choice activists and traditional feminists around the world are united in their fight against "gendercide"  and "the targeted destruction of baby girls." Here in India, there is a concerted effort to prevent ultrasound clinics from revealing the sex of the baby and every state has a well-orchestrated campaign against female feticide.

Because girls are key. Where would any of us be without them?

In ecological terms, girls are a keystone species: one whose presence is crucial to a particular ecosystem and whose destruction can damage it irreparably.

That's obvious. But keystone species are usually not obvious. At least, they're not the ones on the hit parade.  Lions, tigers and elephants are not on the list. Keystoners are more likely to be the spotted owl, the brine shrimp or the humble lichen. The kind of creatures you don’t notice until they’re gone.

That lichen, for example: it's a colonizing organism which can revitalize soil devastated by volcanic ash, fix its own nitrogen and even disintegrate rocks, and it may seem dispensable – it’s only a fungus, after all. But without it, the ecosystem of the Arctic region would suffer cataclysmically and the entire planet would be affected.

The furor and the outrage over gendercide fills me with hope. If even pro-choice activists can object to the targeted destruction of a specific group,  maybe babies with disability, long the completely acceptable target of amniocentesis detection and subsequent abortion, will be next on the endangered species list, right up there with the snail darter and the spotted owl. It may take a bit more imagination, but perhaps some Nobel Laureate will realize, for example, that a world without Down Syndrome kids  (the number of kids with Downs has plummeted in the West, far more precipitously than the decline of girls) would be a poor world indeed. That Nobel Laureate may even be able to figure out why.

We share the earth with a staggering array of life forms, each important in its own way. Saying we are all interconnected is not a platitude, it is a fact. While inclusion has been packaged as the path of virtue, it is really just plain common sense – even self-interest. We exclude at our peril.

But this utilitarian view of inclusion is a narrow and limited one. Beyond it is yet another: one which revels in the sheer variety the earth contains and celebrates life for its own sake, not for what it does for us. It’s a wonderful world, unpredictable and full of surprising twists and turns. Which sex you are, whether you have a brilliant mind or are physically independent are just a few illusory facts which could all change in the twinkling of an eye.

And the keystone species theory, while fun for the way it turns accepted wisdom on its head, is really just another more sophisticated form of exclusion: what about the poor old lion, now that the spotted owl is lord of the jungle?

Girls, owls and people with disabilities enrich our lives in ways we cannot begin to fathom and those of us lucky enough to be ecologists in these particular ecosystems can make grateful lists of rocks they have disintegrated and nitrogen they have created from thin air.

But that’s a bonus. Like the rest of us, they’re all here because God made them. There is no need for them to justify their existence. For just as “every cubic inch of space is a miracle”, so every single species is a keystone species.

PHOTO CREDITS: Two Girls, Hiding: Jo; Owlet: Nicola Tansley; Abhishek with Manju: Ken Carl

1 comment:

Entropy said...

How surely gravity’s law
strong as an ocean current
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing—
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place
Only we, in our arrogance
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrender
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things
because they are in God’s heart
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us
to fall
patiently to trust our heaviness
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.