by Samyak Sibasish
Last November, we witnessed the death of a 31 year old Indian woman, Savita Hallapanavar, in Ireland, after doctors refused to give her an abortion 17 weeks into pregnancy, which created quite a huge furore in the Indian and Irish media. The reason for such a hue and cry was the reason that the doctors cited for their inability to perform an abortion – that Ireland, being a Catholic country, they are obligated not to take the life of a foetus. It is the growing perception that Ireland is being governed by a legal regime that encourages doctors to consider the repercussions of taking the life of a foetus even if it at the cost of the life of the mother, thereby keeping in tune with the ideals of the largely Catholic constitution of the country. It is pervaded by a religious dogma that is disrespectful to non believers and demonstrates utter disregard for the life of a mother as opposed to the ‘life’ of a yet-to-be-born baby.
The debate in this issue basically boils down to pro-choice and pro-life support. The pro-choice and pro-life antagonists argue over whether a woman should have the right to abort a pregnancy when she decides that she is either unable or unwilling to invest a lifetime of resources in the foetus that she is carrying. The pro-life proponents claim that such an act is equivalent to murder because the foetus must be considered a viable human being from the time of conception. The pro-choice proponents, on the other hand, advocate a woman’s rights to control her own body, her right to an induced abortion, especially when her own life is in danger. They argue that when the foetus is detrimental to the survival of the pregnant woman, she should be allowed to choose whether she wants to save her own life herself by exercising her natural rights over her own life and body or she wants to try saving her baby.
In this perspective, it is interesting to examine the position and awareness of the issue of abortion laws in India. In other societies, activists talk about the abortion as something that also involves the ending of a potential human life. However, here, we do not discuss the issue of women’s reproductive rights and abortion on terms of pro-life and pro-choice. We don’t talk and argue about the rights of the mother vis-à-vis those of the unborn baby. In our society, abortion is more of a visceral and possibly sentimental issue, and the causes leading to abortion are looked down upon as things that are extremely shameful for a woman, by the so-called moral guardians of the society. Here, the topic of a case of abortion and the factors leading to it are discussed in a hushed whisper, a disapproving tone and cluck of the tongue.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in 1971 and was suitably amended in 1975. The Indian law empowers women with a choice of abortion in the event of contraceptive abortion, all pregnancies- not just those that endanger the health of mother or foetus, or resulting from rape –- can be terminated legally. Technically, any woman above the age of 18 can have an abortion with nobody’s consent but her own and her doctor’s. However, like several of our laws designed to directly impact the lives of women in ostensibly positive ways, what is real on paper is not nearly as effective in practice. Just like other major women centric laws in India, that prohibit pre-natal sex determination, dowry, women’s education; legislative protection in the field of reproductive and abortion rights also does not translate to reality.
Abortion exists in India. Indian society also strongly encourages it, but hardly when the life of the mother is in danger. Many conservative families in patriarchal Indian families urge the mother to go for abortion, when they get the information through illegal scans that the ensuing baby is a girl child; or when, some woman from the family has got pregnant before marriage. That is when abortion ceases to be an issue which champions a feministic point of view, but rather turns detrimental from a perspective of women’s rights.
As mentioned earlier, the issue of abortion in India is not based on the pro-life and pro-choice divide which debates, elsewhere in the world are based on. From a strictly legal point of view, abortion in India is pro-choice. The fact that India has been plagued by the disturbing facets of overpopulation demands, legality of abortion is a practical solution. The primary reason why abortion is legal in India has only little coherence with it being a basic, personal right and has more to do resources and development. Moreover, in the Indian society, where unwanted pregnancy is a social taboo, had abortion not been legal, it would have led to problems galore. Many a woman would have been forced to go for abortions in clandestine and unsafe medical conditions, to avoid ‘social shame’. That in turn, would have led to gross violations of the law coupled with dangerous medical consequences, possibly even death. However, one of the primary objectives of such a law is to remove the tag of taboo attached with the topic of abortion in the Indian society, something which hasn’t been achieved yet.
Keeping the legality of the issue aside, we need to ponder over as to why, incidents related to abortion and unwanted pregnancy are rarely regarded as anything other than shameful events, slips of judgement or symptoms of malaises in the society. In India, only few sections of the society think on the lines of unwanted pregnancies being a simple biological occurrence, which can be dealt with, safely and quickly, thanks to the bludgeoning medical technology. Rather, they seem to imagine abortion as an undesirable yet inevitable consequence, resulting from lack of moral standards of a woman.
Ultimately, legislation is not the only and moreover, effective tool to ensure that women are aware of and have easy access to their reproductive rights. We have to move beyond the black letter of the law to address such an issue, which is so central to women’s rights. The law is worth its salt when women can go for abortions without being branded sluts, without any sort of social repercussions. Of course, there should be room enough for debate on whether a mother’s life should be given primary importance as opposed to that of the foetus or an unborn baby. The medical safety aspect of abortion cases should also be taken into consideration, while discussing the issue. Furthermore, the logistical problems of abortions being legalized and its potential subsequent misuse should also be open to debate, especially in a society like that of India’s, where the frequency of cases in which female foetuses are surgically killed even when there is no iota of danger to the mother’s life, is far too high. But seeing the topic of abortion and reproductive rights of women as a social taboo doesn’t really make much sense.
(Samyak Sibasish is an Assistant Editor with the Journal of Indian Law and Society)