The gruesome discovery of five female foetuses in a garbage dump in a low-income neighbourhood in Karachi, thrown away like trash should stir debate on abortion and medical ethics. The circumstances under which the foetuses were dumped are still unclear but they were all between 3-6 months according to doctors at the JPMC. Four years ago, in a similar incident, six foetuses were found in another similar low-income locality of the city. Abortion is illegal in the country and allowed only in the eventuality that carrying on with the foetus will put the mother’s life at risk, and the issue is so sensitive that most doctors avoid carrying it out, forcing many women to seek treatment from quacks at serious risk to their lives. According to estimates, about 890,000 abortions are carried out in the country annually, a family planning tool that is deployed in the absence of awareness about contraceptive methods.
According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2006, women in Pakistan have, on average, about four children although they want only three. Contraception is rare with only 22 percent of married Pakistani women using modern methods of family planning, with sterilisation and condoms being the most popular ones. In a cosmopolitan city like Karachi, at least, there is ample access to contraception. Still, many women are compelled to seek abortion when their husbands refuse to use contraception. One needs to increase both awareness of and access to contraceptives.
What is most saddening though is the gender discrimination evident in the fact that all the dumped foetuses were female. Girl children are still largely unwanted in our patriarchal society and are considered a burden. Most of the newborn babies found dead in Karachi are girls and female infanticide is not an archaic crime but a grim reality. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen famously coined the term ‘missing women’ to describe the girls who are simply not alive because of gender discrimination and infanticide due to a cultural preference for boys in South Asia. Changing our patriarchal mindset is much harder. Above all, the manner in which the foetuses were dumped shows a callous disregard for the sanctity of the human body.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 19th, 2012.