Sunday, August 10, 2008

India's tryst with abortion

When the Bombay High Court refused the plea of Niketa and Harish Mehta’s plea to be allowed to abort their unborn baby because of congenital defects in the fetus, they were of course merely stating the law. Perhaps the Mehtas were hoping that the court would interpret the law, which of course they did. But that has not solved the problem.

There are two aspects to abortion – moral and economic, and the Indian Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1972 presumably attempts to address both and does so partially in both cases. Prior to 1972, abortion was illegal in the country and so if people needed one - and they often did - they went off to a quack and had one. Don’t forget that abortion was (and still is) used largely as a birth control measure in India to prevent unwanted pregnancies; mostly in situations where contraception was unavailable. So the MTP act recognized this reality and laid down a lakshman rekha within which pregnancies could be terminated. Pro-Life or not, this act had a role to play; in fact, pro-lifers should actually thank the government for this law – before the law was passed, in every abortion at a charlatan’s shack, both mother and child could have perished; after the act was passed, at least the mother was given a chance to live.

Having said this much, it is however imperative to recognize that the moral dimension of the argument is as important – is in fact sacred and sacrosanct. The sacredness and sanctity of life before and after birth is important to affirm and uphold. It is because this sacredness is neither affirmed nor preached nor practiced that we willfully and deliberately in many parts of the country abort - now that technology has made it possible – our female fetuses without batting an eyelid. After all, if a fetus is only a bunch of cells and has no spark of life in it; why keep it if it does not meet my tastes? One is free then to pick and choose as per one’s taste.

It is this same lack of sanctity for life that contributes to violence in society. Life is a continuum –it is not a before and after story. If life is sacred and valuable and worthy of the protection of the state, it is worthy of protection all the time and not just after birth. Those who are willing to kill before birth will have no compunctions in killing after birth too- so we abort female fetuses before birth and ill treat them and rape them after birth; the unfinished task of killing and maiming that remained unfinished is completed in the cradle and beyond. The Bombay High Court has done right by affirming the sanctity of life in the Mehta case; but the institutions of State need to be proclaiming the same sanctity of life every time a case is brought for trial where some one is trafficked – a human being is bought and sold like chattels, every time there is a rape offender brought up for trial; every time a murderer is tried for his offense- the sanctity of life is a holistic ; it originates before the cradle and ends only at the grave – it does not end even in extreme infirmity.

But as I said, there is an economic dimension to abortion too and that too needs recognition. Many parents simply do not have the economic means to bring up a child which will need prolonged medical or other social support – they just do not have the money. They may recognize the sacredness of life, they may shudder at the thought of aborting their unborn child; but given the dire circumstances of their life they really do not know what to do. In the Mehta case, one of the Bishops of the Catholic Church in Mumbai appealed to the Mehtas not to abort their child and offered an adoption possibility through church run child care institutions. This was a fine gesture but clearly in a country of India’s size and scale not an adequate enough response. Clearly the economic constraints of the situation are typically not taken care of and without providing safety nets through innovative schemes of involving insurance, social security and other support mechanisms that both government and the various arms of civil society can provide, clearly laying down the law and enforcing it mechanically is not enough.

The Bombay High Court has done well in interpreting the law the way it has; by reinforcing the sanctity of life. But clearly it would have done better had it also directed the state to apply its mind on the economic and emotional aspects of bringing up a child with multiple deformities which can drain the resources of many a brave heart

1 comment:

The HOPE House said...

Well written piece. I recently wrote an article on this precise and you can read it here: