Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Abortion in India

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I’m now a regular contributor at Ultraviolet, the only (and possibly first) Indian feminist collablog. This post was cross-posted there, so comments are off here.

Not all of us may agree on whether or not abortion is ethical. Some may feel that it is sinful, but a subjective choice nonetheless. Others may approve in theory but with a dose of “abortion guilt”, to use Naomi Wolf’s term. Still others, I realise, may condemn it altogether. But wherever we stand personally on this spectrum of opinion, the fact that abortion (legal or not) is inevitable in any society should be regarded as the foundation of one’s argument. And as feminists, a certain understanding that real women’s lives hang in the balance between ideologies is a must. Simply put, in the absence of safe and legal abortions, hundreds of thousands of women a year would die or suffer bodily harm as a result of unsafe, illegal ones.

Recently, many American feminists celebrated the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark case that led to the overturning of all laws in the United States that restricted or banned abortion. The new decision came into effect on January 22nd 1973, continues to be a heatedly-argued statute, and has come under threat since. (Do look up Cecilia Fire Thunder for a great example of feminist courage under fire in this issue).

Here in India, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in 1971, came into force the following year, and was revised in 1975. Because the law also provides for abortion in the event of contraceptive failure, 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.

When I came across this fact, I was thrilled by how sex-positive and decidedly unpatriarchal it is, and how lucky we are that it is so — but only for a moment. 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. As with laws forbidding dowry or prenatal sex testing, or encouraging panchayat inclusion or girls’ education, such democratic protection when it comes to reproductive rights is not something that translates to the reality of the majority of Indian women’s lives.

Abortion in India has clearly moved beyond the pro-choice/pro-life divide that debates elsewhere continue to pivot on. Legally speaking, India is pro-choice. The overpopulation issue demands it as a practical necessity. But this in itself means that women’s bodies are commoditized as reproductive vessels. From this perspective, women are not seen in their own light as sexual human beings. The reason why abortion is legal in India seems to have very little to do with such a basic, personal right, and everything to do with resources and development.

Like it or not, biology determines that the female bears the brunt of sexual consequence, disease aside — something which many cultures and societies have taken to mean that all female sexuality is consequential, usually for the worse. Unwanted pregnancy is rarely regarded as anything other than a shameful event, a slip of judgment, a symptom of the malaises of society, or at worst, just desserts. That an unwanted pregnancy can be thought of simply as a biological occurrence that thanks to medical technology can safely and quickly be dealt with is unimaginable along these terms. This is not to say that abortion has no emotional bearing, but only that as a visceral and possibly sentimental issue, any woman who has to deal with it goes through enough without the interference of moral guardians.

And moral guardians are one thing we seem to have no dearth of. Ask yourself: when was the last time you heard about an abortion in an Indian context? To be fair, disinclude any distinctly feminist dialogues you had or such literature you read, as well as questions asked in general medical-related situations. Think of a social instance. Can you recall the last time you heard the term not brought up in a hushed whisper, or with a disapproving tone or cluck of the tongue?

Maybe you can. But I can’t.

A 2001 article in The Hindu stated that the reported abortion rate in India is six lakhs per annum. We can assume a significant margin of unreported abortions, because statistics about women rarely paint the whole picture. Imagine that many women under risk had it not been legal and a percentage who surely were forced to have it in unsafe conditions regardless, or had it induced within the home. Despite this, we don’t discuss the issue in any way that really helps.

Ultimately, appropriate legislation is simply not enough to ensure that women are aware of and have access to their reproductive rights. Reproductive rights are not limited to abortion — birth control, childlessness as a choice and sexual health and pleasure are also areas in which a great deal of agency is required before results that reflect either laws or women-centric ideals (which should then be used as the basis for better laws) are achieved. Take for instance the somewhat related issue of rape: can anyone who really understands female sexuality and the power dynamics of rape and assault restrict its definition to penile penetration only? What we need is agency that radicalizes at intimate, grassroots levels. Agency that occurs via personal interaction, exposure to feminist-sensitive media and exposure to on-the-ground activist work. Agency that doesn’t marginalize sexuality as an aside to reproduction, but regards it at its core.

We’ll know that the law is worth its salt when women can get abortions without being branded sluts, without their entire societal circle finding out, without any consequences but those all surgical procedures come with. And that day seems a long way off yet. Until then, we’ll have to take as our biggest stepping stone the fact that the law, if little else, is on the women’s side.

And finally, for the sake of discourse, I wonder about the question that will be asked when — or if — feminism impacts us enough for us to think of India as a post-feminist nation. If each woman’s reproductive choices should be honoured as her own — can we also honour the choice of a woman who practises sex-selective abortion, not under pressure or threat, but out of her personal desire to not have a daughter? I’m still thinking my answer over.

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