The Venus Flytrap: The Meaning of “Life”

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Among the enshrined principles of the United Nations Population Fund is the concept that “Human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated.” Among these, the belief in the inalienability of a right – in other words, the certainty that it cannot be taken away or given up – gives those who possess it a sense of resting easy. Something hard-won (even if also intrinsic) should be permanent, after all. But once in a while, an enquiring vigilance provides necessary maintenance of the right in question. When I came across news that India’s Supreme Court had admitted a petition to “decriminalise abortion”, I wondered what on earth they were talking about. It turns out that what is up for legal appraisal is the right to terminate a foetus beyond 20 weeks, which has so far been permitted only in case of abnormality or a danger to the mother’s life.

In a beautiful exposition, the petition asks about what the meaning of the word “life” in this context can be – whether it can go beyond physical survival to be “liberally construed so as to comprehend not only physical existence but also quality of life as is understood in its richness and fullness consistent with human dignity?”. Should this petition work, it may help to affirm a more progressive way of looking at the issue of abortion in India, expanding technical legality to make room for rights, freedoms and choices.

Why is (some) abortion here legal to begin with? It’s a let down to consider that this fundamental human right may be available not for sound ethical reasons, but due to an underside of female foeticide and even eugenics. As some experts like climate change specialist Fred Peace say, the use of the word “overpopulation” can be racist – for example, where the reputed Smithsonian Magazine described Mumbai’s Dharavi as “a vision of urban hell”, he saw it as thriving. When mass sterilisation and other draconian measures can’t apply, supremacists can still rely on the idea that people themselves (particularly the poverty-stricken) will choose termination. Every gynaecologist’s office in the country has a poster about not disclosing sex for a reason. Western conservatives’ “sacredness of life” argument, which is currently systematically challenging the right to abortion in state after state in the USA, is irrelevant in a place where certain lives are already devalued over others.

Here, the loss of virginity is more taboo than the elimination of offspring. Which is why the expansion of the legal provisions around abortion is important. By posing that crucial musing on the quality of life, the conversation broadens meaningfully. Just because a person won’t die in childbirth doesn’t mean that other aspects of her – creative, financial, professional, mental, among others – aren’t extinguished or debilitated. This isn’t an abstract consideration. Its tangibility lies in how we define the answers for ourselves.

Perhaps it isn’t enough to feel assured about the inalienability of rights, be they about bodily autonomy or any other subject. Perhaps by thinking about the potential of losing them, we find ways to both protect and to expand them – in spirit and practice, and for as many more people as possible.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 18th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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