Sterilization: The Unasked Questions by The Indian Media

INTRODUCTION

The wave of sterilization deaths in November sparked off widespread outrage in the media, but there was a clear difference in the way debates were framed by the Indian and the international press. As an Indian American  working in the Indian news space in New Delhi, I am alarmed at the type of questions that were asked and weren’t asked.

But first the facts.

On 8 November 2014, 13 women were killed and 50 seriously debilitated at a mass sterilization camp in Bilaspur, central India, one of the poorest regions of the country. Both the Chhattisgarh state government & central government promised swift action and ordered inquiries. The doctors allegedly responsible were suspended and arrested. Preliminary inquiries suggest that infected medical utensils, tainted antibiotics and the pressure for doctors to meet their sterilization quotas led to these shocking incidents.

STERILIZATION AND COERCION

In the Bilaspur camps, the women who underwent the sterilization procedure were young, mostly under 30, and they were offered 1400 rupees (which is less than $25) as an incentive.

If such a sum of money is part of the incentive for a woman to agree to such a life-altering medical procedure, is it then right that she gets it done at all? Has she been made aware of the risks, of the repercussions? More troubling to ask, has she been forced into sterilization? Women in extreme poverty don’t always have full control of their choices and coercion is sometimes done by suggestion. To be sure, many women who go to the camp voluntarily, have often already given birth multiple times, and turn to sterilization because they do not want to become pregnant again. What isn’t clear however is if they have been encouraged to use other means of contraception. Also not clear is how much of the government’s family planning initiative includes counseling for alternative contraceptive methods.

MORE TROUBLING QUESTIONS

The way in which sterilization camps are run, and female sterilization as a policy with its targets and quotas are being implemented, is in essence a coercive population control policy. Informed individual choice or informed consent is missing. In these camps, counseling isn’t given nor is the procedure done safely, with the necessary post-operative care.

There are more troubling questions. Why is it an acceptable policy to encourage women in impoverished conditions to get sterilized? Do the poor or less upwardly mobile not have a right to conceive and produce children? Do the poor not have the ability to make choices or decisions about what’s good for their family? Most of these women are under 30–and in the middle of their childbearing years. Shouldn’t lower middle class women in developing nations be allowed the same considerations and counseling as women in better socioeconomic circumstances?

INTERNATIONAL NEWS COVERAGE

International news organizations –  from The New York Times, to CNN and Al Jazeera English – have covered India’s sterilization program from a human rights perspective, and have brought up the need for the Indian government to question its female sterilization policy.

In a sharp editorial, The New York Times wrote, “India persists in a cruel strategy of bringing down birthrates through mass female sterilization…Mr. Modi should call for an immediate end to mass sterilization of poor women.” (NYT, 20 November 2014.) CNN, in an article published under the header, “India sterilization program under fire after women’s deaths, “ quoted Kerry McBroom, an advocate with the Human Rights Network extensively on the issue. McBloom said that the deaths in Chhattisgarh should serve as a wake-up call to rethink the sterilization program more generally. (12 November 2014).

INDIAN NEWS COVERAGE

The Indian news media did not question the government as strongly, nor did it take its critique as far as pushing for an end to mass sterilization camps. The Indian media’s focus instead was on culpability for the gross medical negligence and how fixing basic health infrastructure systems is critical. (To be sure, these questions are important as well.)

Both the television and print media questioned top political leaders and reported their reactions – the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh called the incident “unfortunate” and promised swift action, the Health Minister JP Nadda denied the central government’s sterilization targets, and Minister for Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi said “lesson we have learned from this is that all invasive procedures must be done institutionally.” Meanwhile, the opposition parties slammed the Chhattisgarh state government and held it responsible. The state government in turn, blamed the doctors.

The Times of India and The Hindu stuck mostly to the angles of negligence and lack of safe infrastructure. Television news channels structured their line of questioning similarly, but their discussions did tangentially question why female sterilization is the cornerstone of the government’s family planning policy. On 14 November, CNN-IBN aired a debate featuring experts and a former government official, where its talking point was, “Bilaspur Tragedy: Is the government health infrastructure in need of a revamp?” A former Health secretary did say that camps should be closed but this suggestion was lost in the debate. NDTV’s Barkha Dutt took the dialogue the furthest on her show “We The People,” posing the question, “Medicine or Murder: Time to Scrap the Mass Sterilisation Policy?” A slew of politicians and experts from across the spectrum made up the guest panel and audience, and a heated conversation ensued. Unfortunately the conversation remained stuck over whether alternative contraceptive methods for poor women are feasible or not, and didn’t really put emphasis on the fact that mass sterilization camps should be stopped.

These are just a few examples but the bottomline is that the Indian media failed to condemn the policy of mass sterilizations. I have yet to come across even one article or opinion piece from the Indian media that condemns the mass sterilization camps as scathingly as the NYT editorial. The Indian media should have focused on the big picture. What has happened in Chhattisgarh is a human rights violation on so many levels, it is hard to control one’s outrage, but the right questions must be asked and their answers sought.

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