On Abortion

Sometime back Gounder Brownie did a post on abortion, in which she raised a lot of interesting questions on the ethical side of it. It’s certainly a dicey topic and one that is difficult to be completely objective about . Like everyone I too have had conflicting thoughts about abortion over the years.

In school I was vaguely pro-life, and so were most of my friends. It could have been due to our attending a Roman Catholic institution and being still too naive to question received wisdom, it could have been the idealism of early youth. In any case, my crossing over to the other camp happened very gradually– looking back, I think it was only after I became a mother myself, when it was brought home to me how difficult childbearing was even when one fully wanted it, that I became unequivocally pro-choice. From one end of the pendulum to the other, as it were.

Over the last few years,  however, I have been veering towards the mean position of the pendulum as I became aware that a no-holds-barred pro-choice position was as fraught with ethical issues as its antithesis. And GB’s post made me realize that my own views on the subject were quite a bundle of contradictions.

Now, it is mostly assumed that the decision to abort is a difficult one, and I do believe that for the most part it is, but what about women who casually abort pregnancies occurring not due to contraceptive failure but a failure to use contraceptives in the first place? We know this is not an uncommon scenario. I have personally known at least two women who did just this–one of them was my domestic helper many years back. Both women had a similar story to tell–they could not use the IUD due to recurring infections, and pills gave both of them severe headache and nausea.  So all they did was pray that they didn’t get pregnant. Their prayers, inevitably, failed every few months.

Well, what of them? Subjecting your body to such an atrocity is without doubt a terrible thing to do. It is definitely not advisable , just as drug-abuse and suicide cannot be advisable. Surely these women can find ONE way of contraception that suits them– I’d say they are in dire need of counseling.

But the reason I find it reprehensible has entirely to do with the harm such women cause themselves and nothing to do with the fact that so many  fetuses are deprived of life– somehow I cannot bring myself to feel for fetuses under ten weeks any more than I feel for the human ovum being deprived of life by not getting a chance to be fertilised and ending up in a period. Or about the millions of spermatozoa dying away when prevented from fertilising the ovum. In any case only one out of those millions gets to live under the best conditions, but that is beside the point. The point is, we cannot begin to mourn the loss of every bit of life. Ultra-right zealots of various denominations try to do just that, and oppose even contraception on that very ground. Thankfully, the majority of humankind has better sense than to listen to them.

If the woman in a case like this is more than ten weeks along when she comes around to abort, well, too bad for her own body as well as for the fetus, but it is still her choice. The fact that the MTP Act mentions lists only failure of contraception, and not failure to use contraception, as one of the valid reasons fro abortion, means nothing because it just cannot be proved. In any case I do mostly feel that a woman should have the right to abort for no other reason than her not wanting the baby.

And then there is the sticky issue of fetal reduction, a term I became familiar with only recently. Apparently, women who undergo infertility treatments often get multiple pregnancies, and to make it less difficult for the mother, some fetuses are terminated while the others are kept. This may be medically advised or might simply be the choice of the parents.

Now fetal reduction is something that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t quite know why, and I know I am venturing into pro-life territory here. Maybe because in these cases the parents obviously want a child and are undergoing treatment towards that end–and multiple pregnancies are almost part of the deal. Or maybe it is the randomness that bothers me–the fact that one of the same lot gets to live while the other does not. But then what if someone becomes pregnant not with twins or triplets but octuplets, noneplets or more-plets–wouldn’t that necessitate fetal reduction in the interest of the mother’s health and better fetal viability? I guess so.

Which brings us to abortion in case of congenital and potentially fatal heart conditions/ debilitating genetic disorders/ other kinds of fetal abnormality. Of course abortions are totally in order, and in fact medically advised,  in case such fetal conditions come to light in ultrasound scans and if the parents so desire— what would be the point of pre-natal diagnostics if the options of either remedy in utero or termination were to not exist? But then it is increasingly being asked whether the reasons put forward to dispose of a fetus with a deformity couldn’t be applied to a female fetus–severe drain on resources, difficult to raise et al. So why don’t we allow a woman who does not want to have a girl, to abort?

It is here, I think, that the pro-choice argument runs into trouble.  How to reconcile choice with the need to prevent gendercide? Well, the fact is that they cannot be reconciled. I am afraid sex-selective abortions have become a stick in the hands of pro-lifers to beat pro-choice people with. I am also afraid that they do have a point.

There are limits to the pro-choice line of thought, and those limits lie at sex-selective abortions and whim-abortions( not wanting to have a baby with a crooked nose/ dark skin/red hair/black-brown-grey eyes–you get the drift). I am  convinced, and have always been convinced, that such choices are invalid. Why? Let me try and answer that.

–It’s not fair to suggest that the parents of girls in India face the same kind of challenges as parents of differently-able kids do.  That’s just not true. Being female in itself is not a disability by a long stretch. Raising girls requires no more effort or money than boys. The whole marriage/dowry angle is a social construct which it is perfectly possible, even if not exactly easy, to avoid.

— I may sound moralistic, but I do believe that if a couple want a child, they just have to be prepared to have a child of either sex, even if they have a preference for one particular sex. It may be likened to a game of dice–you can choose not to play at all but once you do, you must be prepared for unfavourable outcomes in terms of gender and external features which are trivial in the sense that they do not require lifelong or extensive care or treatment and do not affect life-expectancy.

— Through the millenia, sex-ratio has shown a tendency to bounce  back to decent levels despite invasions, wars and calamities. Sex-ratio is self-stabilizing if given half a chance, and this has played no mean role in the survival of the human race, which , of course, includes women. The problem is, it’s not getting even that half a chance to correct itself given India’s morbid hatred for daughters. which is why tough and tougher measures are entirely called for.  One cannot be allowed to make choices that in effect put the very survival of their species at risk.

In this context, I am reminded of the food rationing that happened in WW II Britain when people weren’t allowed to buy more than the specified amount of food/other essential items even if they could afford it. Given the wartime food scarcity, it was understood that in the absence of any kind of control, all the food would be bought off the stores by the rich, leaving the poor high and dry. The rich couldn’t be allowed to choose to buy all the food they could buy. Sometimes choices have to be sacrificed in the larger good of the society.

As it is, whatever little the government is doing to prevent gendercide is clearly not helping matters enough– I am sure it could do a lot better if only it had enough will– and I shudder to think of what would happen if sex-selective abortions were to be made legal. Taking the stigma of illegality out of sex-selective abortions might well make it shoot through the roof. Women might find themselves being coaxed and forced to ‘choose’ not to bear girl children–(“It is legal, after all!”) While I agree that changing the mindset of the people is the best way of countering the problem, I also strongly feel that while the mindset remains what it is, anti-sex-selection laws must hold.

So I am all for bestowing personhood on a fetus in anti-sex-selection ads, as also making use of  loaded terms like bhroona- hatya , as long as they evoke horror and dissuade even a single parent from going for sex-selection– even though I am aware that a twelve week fetus is far from being a person. I am totally bugged by suggestions that those who abort female fetuses because they want no daughters should not be blamed, that they are actually only victims of  vicious societal restrictions and so on. Of course they must be blamed, caught and punished. Anything and everything that adds more muscle to the PNDT Act and leads to better implementation is in order, because as far as I see, this is nothing less than a war being waged against women, and war-like situations demand drastic measures. If thinking so makes me any less of a feminist, so be it.

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22 Responses to On Abortion

  1. bhagwad says:

    With regard to the first point about abortion as a contraceptive that is damaging to the woman’s health. Well, you can take the horse to the water…I feel that as long as they’re informed about the choices and the toll abortion takes on their body (does it?) then that’s that. Their body. Their life.

    Now to the more interesting question of sex selective abortions and pro choice. I think forcing a woman to carry a female fetus against her will is a terrible idea. It’s quite a bit more dystopian than rationing food because the food wasn’t produced by the people’s bodies. A woman forced to carry a female fetus is essentially the state hijacking her body for an abstract social agenda. And what about the baby afterwards? A lot of thought is being given to the time before the baby is born. No one cares about its quality of life after birth by unloving parents who never wanted her in the first place, will probably mistreat her, kill her, or toruture her throughout. That’s not a life we should wish on anyone.

    I’d actually written about this very issue 5 months ago on my blog. Generated quite a lot of discussion: http://www.bhagwad.com/blog/2013/rights-and-freedoms/abortion-pro-choice-and-sex-selective-abortion.html/

    • I think the specter of the state hijacking the woman’s body to suit its agenda does not arise as long as the woman isn’t being forced by the state to bear children, and then only female children. The state is not asking her to even conceive a child, she may choose to not ever have a child for all the state cares. She also reserves the right to abort anytime she wishes up to twenty weeks of gestation in India for any reason except the sex of the baby or indeed for no reason at all. If you don’t want a baby, by all means don’t have one, just that you cannot choose not to bear a baby ONLY because it is female– because it interferes with the order of nature. I don’t see that as being terribly unfair to the woman.

      The abstract agenda is quite tangible, actually. A plummeting sex-ratio harms women before it harms anybody else. They become more and more prone to sexual violence and trafficking as the tribe of men unable to find sexual partners grows ominously. We’re beginning to see signs of it already.

      With decreasing numbers, women’s political voice will become feebler. It will become even more of a struggle to have their voices heard. Who knows, in a society with ,say, 75% men and 25% women, men might well legislate to make it legal for men to expect sexual favours from the wife of a sibling and women will find themselves unable to do much about it.

      A healthy sex-ratio is essentially in women’s own interest as much as it is in the state’s interest, if not more. So too bad for the woman who only wants to bear sons and no daughters–this is one choice she cannot and should not be allowed to make.

      • About what happens to the baby after it’s born– I think it’s fair to say that the parents of a vast majority of women in our country were not exactly delighted at these women’s birth. Daughters have never been wanted in our country thanks to a screwed up social order and their birth was always treated like something of a calamity, a misfortune, but that hardly means that all these women were mistreated, not loved, given hell. Their parents may not have wanted them but that doesn’t really mean they didn’t love them when they did have them.

      • bhagwad says:

        I’m just imagining myself in the shoes of a woman who has a child and doesn’t want it to be female (or male for that matter)! There’s this thing growing inside me that I don’t love, sucking my nutrition and bending my body. And it’s because of the government that I can’t have it out!

        P.S. I’ve always viewed the fetus as a parasite and I guess that comes out in my descriptions of pregnancy 🙂

        There’s just something wrong about the government saying “You can have an abortion for any reason. Even just for fun and for the kicks of it. But not for this one particular reason.”

      • Well, if the govt. implements its law well, she won’t know the sex of the baby and won’t feel so bad! Let the baby be born and let maternal instinct kick in as it is meant to. There is a reason why in the past, despite daughters being spectacularly unwanted, female infanticide never really caught on.

        What facilitates female foeticide is that it is difficult to feel love for, to relate to, a twelve week fetus, and hence that much easier to dispose of it. Given that all of India has an overwhelming preference for sons, it’s only reasonable to not let parents know the sex of the fetus beforehand lest every woman carrying the burdensome female fetus choose to abort it and cause a full-on social catastrophe.

        I don’t see anything wrong in the government not allowing to abort on the basis of sex, the situation being what it is. I can’t imagine ANY government in the world sitting around twiddling its thumbs, wondering how to take away from women the right to have a sex-selective abortion, if everyone in that country wants babies of only one sex and not the other, and it is leading to an alarming dip in the number of children of the unwanted sex.

      • Fem says:

        I agree with Bhagwad. The sex determination law is a complete disgrace. It has not resulted in women’s empowerment and neither has it helped in any way to make girls’ quality of life better. The government does not want to put in efforts to educate people on equality. They want the easy way out of a problem they created themselves by advertising sex-selective abortion as a means of reducing population, and the easy way is not working. How long are we going to allow the government to pass such stupid laws and never get to the essence of the problem, which is that woman have rights. Why are there not any campaigns against women’s treatment? Essentially, what is happening now is that girls are being born and are miserable. How do we justify that? If I were the kind of person who wanted a baby, I’d break this law again and again because it is stupid and ineffective.

  2. I’ve always defended a woman’s reproductive rights militantly. My body, I call the shots.
    The sex selective abortions in India however are leaving me feeling very mixed up about the whole issue. It’s so sick – eliminating large sections of a gender in a pre-meditated way – so similar to genocide. It’s not about an individual’s right to one’s body anymore, it is trying to stop the war against women, Or at least one part of it. If we don’t change our attitudes and beliefs, saving that girl child’s life will be meaningless of course, as we subject her to malnutrition, prejudice, eve teasing, dowry, harassment, abuse, and a host of other ills.

    • //It’s not about an individual’s right to one’s body anymore, it is trying to stop the war against women//
      Exactly what I feel.

      I think our attitudes and beliefs will change over time. As more and more girls join the workforce and make themselves economically secure, their parents will stop seeing them as liabilities. Girls joining the workforce will also result in more and more choice marriages, which would loosen the stranglehold of the society over girls’ parents and eliminate ills like dowry and harassment. Things will definitely change, a lot of change is already underway, but given the sheer size and complexity of Indian society, it will take take at least a generation or two for the change to be felt at ground level. Till that happens, anti-sex-selection laws need to remain in place and vigorously implemented, IMO.

  3. Rekha says:

    Whatever said and done, it must be the woman’s choice.

    • Welcome here, Rekha.
      Umm, I didn’t quite get you. What must be the woman’s choice–abortions in general or sex-selective abortions in particular? If you mean the former, I agree with you. If you mean the latter, I don’t!

      • Rekha says:

        Thank you! 🙂

        I meant the abortion in general. Being a mother, should be strictly a girl’s choice because she’s the one who bears the baby for 9 months and later gets so much entangled in his/her growing up that she forgets her own self.

        I’m a mother of two girls and would never ever stand for sex-selective adoptions.

      • Okay, we’re on the same page then!
        And hey, I am a mother of two girls too 🙂

  4. Deeps says:

    Didnt know about the procedure called Fetal Reduction. That pulls at my heart somewhere, making me sad :(.
    And female fetuses are being clubbed under deformed fetuses to make grounds for abortion? Thats shocking and sounds utterly ridiculous to me.

    • Fetal reduction makers me uneasy too. Consider the case of a woman grappling with infertility. She goes in for IVF(very expensive and time consuming). After several cycles have ended in disappointment, she finally conceives–but is told she is carrying, say, sextuplets. Doctors advise her to consider fetal-reduction to two. Now, a complete abortion would probably be easier on the conscience but she cannot bring herself to do that when she has conceived with so much difficulty and cannot be sure she will conceive again. So she must go in for reduction and very probably face emotional issues. Sometimes technology creates more problems than it solves.

  5. You’ve raised some pretty sticky issues here. Sex selective abortion is so abhorrent to me that it makes me gnash my teeth. I’m the mother of three girls and while I was pregnant with them, it was legal to check the sex of the baby. Various ‘helpful’ people suggested to me, during my second pregnancy already, to find out the sex of the baby. ” What for?” I asked them, “Whatever it is, I’m not going for an abortion.” Glad that a law has been passed now. Sad that it isn’t being implemented. Anyway – what use are laws without education.
    About abortion – I feel it’s very hard to generalize and each case must be addressed with that particular woman’s needs in mind. Unless it’s for a boy. If only doctors who perform ultrasounds would cooperate – women who want a boy could be counseled together with their families. But catch the government doing anything that actually works.
    I was thinking about your household help who can’t bear an IUD or the pill and regularly has abortions. If she had been counseled, she could have learned how to insist her partner uses a condom, been trained in the rhythm method, been given a mini pill, used a spermicide. None of these are fool proof but it;s better than nothing. If only female condoms were easily available. What’s the use of developing a thing with so much potential and not making it easily available?
    Thanks for making us think!

    • Hi Kalpana, welcome here and thanks for commenting.

      Sex-selective abortion is such a hydra-headed issue that I really have no idea as to what might help curb it. If there is one thing common to all classes, castes, religions and communities in India, it is this craving for a son. Everyone understands and empathizes with the desire of everyone else to have ‘at least one son’. Having more than one daughter is considered a misfortune of no mean proportion. So the society treats SSA as something that is not quite right but ‘understandable’ nonetheless. The doctors and other medical staff, being part of the same society, subscribe to this view too and play along–it helps that they also get to make substantial money in the process.

      The thing is, tough laws are all very well but who is going to implement them when everyone accepts and condones the son-preference that drives SSA. Counseling women and their families is hardly feasible given the sheer numbers involved and also because the doctors themselves are in need of serious counselling. You know, during both my pregnancies, at the time of routine scans, the vague look of regret on the face of the doctors performing the scans led me to infer, correctly as it turned out, that I was going to have a daughter, though they did not say anything because I never asked. How sad a state of affairs is that!

      Okay I got carried away here 🙂 Coming to contraceptives //What’s the use of developing a thing with so much potential and not making it easily available?//
      Absolutely!! Couldn’t agree more.

  6. Just some random thoughts. Maybe if the government carried out campaigns against patriarchal attitudes and encouraged women to be self reliant and marry only when they want to, with an easy option of divorce and support in case of abuse.
    Maybe if forced marriages were legally banned and women were encouraged (with easy loans and PGs and hostels) to be independent – Maybe if government were to work to create awareness about the evils of patriarchy and moral policing so that women could live alone more easily, even in smaller cities – and if crimes, specially sexual crimes against women were taken more seriously, then probably no woman (or parents) would want to choose the sex of their baby. So the solution is, perhaps, not to just ban (or not ban) sex selection, but to also take care of what makes people want to avoid having daughters. Because so long as there are reasons to not-want baby girls, banning sex selection doesn’t really work, girl children are killed with neglect/aborted in Thailand, or raised to see themselves as worthless unless they produce baby boys 😦

    • Fem says:

      Completely agree!

      • Fem says:

        Payment of VAT and taxes are not issues related to a person’s body. A person, man or woman, must have full control over their bodies. Comparing economic issues to ownership of body is really not advisable.

      • Didn’t mean to compare, only tried to show how it is perfectly possible for the government to make people comply with it’s laws if it wants to–in response to the contention that as long as people have reasons not to want daughters, the ban on SSA will not really work. Said as much in the comment.

        //( Not comparing SSA to tax-evasion, only trying to point out that the government can very well make people do things they don’t want to do if only it has the will. So a ban on SSA can and should work even though people may have their own reasons not to have daughters.)//

    • I agree, IHM, that the solution lies in not just banning sex-selection but also in taking care of what makes daughters unwanted in the first place–just that i am not sure the government will EVER wholeheartedly throw itself into transforming the social scene so completely. The government is mostly male and I do not count upon them to want to eliminate the evils of patriarchy. (I know patriarchy harms men too, just that most men don’t think so.) Maybe I am too much of a cynic.

      So here’s what I feel– the ground reality will definitely change, not because of the government but inspite of the government. Which means it will take time. In the meanwhile, the most I would expect from the government is to ensure that the ban on sex-selection remains in place and more crucially, to also figure out ways of ensuring better compliance. Just like you may not want to pay your income tax but you have to. You may not want to pay a 13% VAT on your restaurant bills but you have to.( Not comparing SSA to tax-evasion, only trying to point out that the government can very well make people do things they don’t want to do if only it has the will. So a ban on SSA can and should work even though people may have their own reasons not to have daughters.)

    • Amit says:

      Completely agree with IHM here. It is more about creating an environment where the citizens shun the mere thought of aborting a girl child. It is about changing the ‘culture’.

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