Writerzblock recently did a thought-provoking post on abortion, where she asked whether it was cruel or kind to abort a foetus with a congenital abnormality. Most commenters agreed that it was kind and not cruel to abort in such cases, because the child would likely suffer due to his disability, and it would naturally cause parents great anguish to watch their child suffer.
I agree that having to watch a child suffer indefinitely is any parent’s worst nightmare, and it makes complete sense to seriously consider abortion if some congenital defect comes to light. In any case disability related abortions are not just sanctioned by law in India, but actually encouraged–what would be the point of pre-natal diagnostics if either the possibility of remedy in utero, or the option of terminating the pregnancy, were to not exist? Couples, in fact are medically advised to abort in cases where the foetus is understood to be suffering from a disease that is debilitating or potentially fatal or both, as long as the termination is carried out within the legally imposed limit of 20 weeks of gestation. Of course the parents have every right to reject the advice and go ahead with the pregnancy, as some parents indeed do. It is a choice they are entitled to make. To each their own.
I am afraid this cruelty vs. kindness line of thinking makes me feel very uneasy, because of the implicit suggestion that it cannot but be cruel/sinful to abort in the absence of any abnormality. That it is somehow wrong for a woman to choose to have an abortion for no other reason than the fact that she does not want to have a child at that point of time. That she loses the right to decide what happens to her body as soon as she gets pregnant.
We need to keep in mind that an abortion is never a frivolous indulgence. No sane woman likes to have an abortion. It is an invasive surgical process and as such carries definite risks. It involves physical and emotional trauma and most women, whether educated or illiterate, are aware of this fact. It cannot be an easy decision to make.
The fact is, no contraceptive in the world is a hundred percent effective, and that means at least some women the world over get pregnant against their wishes. Many times a contraceptive may simply be unavailable, and that is not really the woman’s fault–we know women, particularly women in the third world, are often not in a position to say no. Sad, but true. We have an abysmal record of protecting women from sexual violence. How fair is it to expect a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term?
I believe it is ethically dubious for any law or person to force a woman to carry on with a pregnancy she does not want. It is her body. She has a right to decide what happens with her body. After all, it is a part of her human rights.
The idea of cruelty to the foetus rests on the fact that the foetus is a potential person and all persons have a right to life. But do human beings have a right to life at the cost of another human being’s right to her body? Do the foetus’s rights override the rights of the mother? I think most liberal countries have tried to achieve a compromise between the rights of a foetus and the rights of the mother by stipulating that a woman has the right to decide whether or not she chooses to subject her body to pregnancy up to the point of viability, i.e. the approximate time during gestation when a foetus theoretically achieves the ability to survive outside the mother’s body , albeit with medical aid. Once the foetus reaches the supposed point of viability, its rights as a person kick in and the state assumes the responsibility to protect its life (except when the mother’s life is endangered, in which case maternal life takes precedence over the foetus’s at any stage)–and the mother is obligated by law to carry the foetus to term, whether or not she wants to. She can no longer opt out. In other words, the point of viability is the point of no-return. Fair enough, I think.
In India, the choice to carry on or not carry on with a pregnancy comes with a rider–the decision to abort must not be based on the sex of the foetus. No woman can ‘choose’ not to carry a female foetus to term. This is somewhat contrary to the concept of choice and the right of a woman to her body –it can probably be best explained as a small price to pay for the good of women as a whole. The sex-ratio in this part of the world has been worsening steadily and alarmingly over the last two decades . It is a grim situation, the only way to deal with which is to stop sex-selctive abortions from happening –in the larger interest of the society of which women are a part.
While Indian laws on abortions are fairly liberal, there is a marked inclination in the Indian society to regard them as sinful/cruel. It probably stems from its patriarchal setup which has traditionally thrived by oppressing women and disregarding their basic rights. Writerzblock thinks it might also have to do with the widely subscribed philosophy of karma–quite probable. That said, I wonder if the campaign against female foeticide (foeticide, by the way, is a deliberately loaded term meant to induce horror in the target audience and so is bhroona hatya, its Hindi equivalent) has not played a part in further polarizing public opinion on abortions on the whole. If it has, then it is a study in irony–because the campaign is showing no signs of having any effect on the prevalence of sex-selective abortions. So even while sex-selective abortions continue unabated, many people have come to feel more and more strongly against abortions per se.