The Venus Flytrap: The Meaning of “Life”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Abortion in India”