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The Indian woman's decision to sex-selectively abort: Challenging the presumption of adaptive preference formation and absence of autonomy

The Indian woman's decision to sex-selectively abort: Challenging the presumption of adaptive preference formation and absence of autonomy
Melanie Fellowes


School of Law, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S10 2TN, UNITED KINGDOM.


Some women in India are making the decision to abort their foetus because it has been identified as female. One feminist intuition could be that those decisions are a result of false consciousness, that women have adapted their preferences in response to the social and gender oppression to which they are subjected. The presumption is also that the adaptive preference signifies an absence of autonomy. This thesis challenges that intuition and presumption, arguing that not all preferences made under oppressive conditions are to be regarded as non-autonomous. The motivation behind decisions is complex and a decision must be considered in the context of varied social, economic and cultural influences.

The thesis uses three hypothetical case studies to facilitate a critical analysis of the concept of adaptive preference formation and different theories of autonomy from a feminist perspective: the content-neutral traditional procedural theory, content laden substantive theories and the relational theories which are re-conceptualised versions of the former accounts. This results in a theoretical analysis of which approach to autonomy best acknowledges the effect oppression may have on decision- making but is also able to recognise a woman’s autonomy where possible. This analysis is valuable as it reveals the difficulties in determining autonomy when such complex theories of autonomy are applied to real-life cases but also demonstrates that there is the possibility of the presence of autonomy even within a restricted choice environment. Although this focus on autonomy must not serve to detract from condemnation of a practice which perpetuates the denigration of women, condemnation alone is unlikely to result in a change in practice. I conclude that only when respect for bodily integrity is placed at the heart of medical decision-making in India will the right to self-determination and autonomy be realised for everyone.