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

    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.

    Abortion in India has clearly moved beyond the pro-choice/pro-life divide that debates elsewhere continue to pivot on. Legally speaking, India is pro-choice. The overpopulation issue demands it as a practical necessity. But this in itself means that women’s bodies are commoditized as reproductive vessels. From this perspective, women are not seen in their own light as sexual human beings. The reason why abortion is legal in India seems to have very little to do with such a basic, personal right, and everything to do with resources and development.

    Like it or not, biology determines that the female bears the brunt of sexual consequence, disease aside — something which many cultures and societies have taken to mean that all female sexuality is consequential, usually for the worse. Unwanted pregnancy is rarely regarded as anything other than a shameful event, a slip of judgment, a symptom of the malaises of society, or at worst, just desserts. That an unwanted pregnancy can be thought of simply as a biological occurrence that thanks to medical technology can safely and quickly be dealt with is unimaginable along these terms. This is not to say that abortion has no emotional bearing, but only that as a visceral and possibly sentimental issue, any woman who has to deal with it goes through enough without the interference of moral guardians.

    And moral guardians are one thing we seem to have no dearth of. Ask yourself: when was the last time you heard about an abortion in an Indian context? To be fair, disinclude any distinctly feminist dialogues you had or such literature you read, as well as questions asked in general medical-related situations. Think of a social instance. Can you recall the last time you heard the term not brought up in a hushed whisper, or with a disapproving tone or cluck of the tongue?

    Maybe you can. But I can’t.

    A 2001 article in The Hindu stated that the reported abortion rate in India is six lakhs per annum. We can assume a significant margin of unreported abortions, because statistics about women rarely paint the whole picture. Imagine that many women under risk had it not been legal and a percentage who surely were forced to have it in unsafe conditions regardless, or had it induced within the home. Despite this, we don’t discuss the issue in any way that really helps.

    Ultimately, appropriate legislation is simply not enough to ensure that women are aware of and have access to their reproductive rights. Reproductive rights are not limited to abortion — birth control, childlessness as a choice and sexual health and pleasure are also areas in which a great deal of agency is required before results that reflect either laws or women-centric ideals (which should then be used as the basis for better laws) are achieved. Take for instance the somewhat related issue of rape: can anyone who really understands female sexuality and the power dynamics of rape and assault restrict its definition to penile penetration only? What we need is agency that radicalizes at aintimate, grassroots levels. Agency that occurs via personal interaction, exposure to feminist-sensitive media and exposure to on-the-ground activist work. Agency that doesn’t marginalize sexuality as an aside to reproduction, but regards it at its core.

    We’ll know that the law is worth its salt when women can get abortions without being branded sluts, without their entire societal circle finding out, without any consequences but those all surgical procedures come with. And that day seems a long way off yet. Until then, we’ll have to take as our biggest stepping stone the fact that the law, if little else, is on the women’s side.

    And finally, for the sake of discourse, I wonder about the question that will be asked when — or if — feminism impacts us enough for us to think of India as a post-feminist nation. If each woman’s reproductive choices should be honoured as her own — can we also honour the choice of a woman who practises sex-selective abortion, not under pressure or threat, but out of her personal desire to not have a daughter? I’m still thinking my answer over.

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    21 Responses

    1. Great article. I totally agree, though I do have to say that — as far as I’ve seen — abortion is not an easy conversation topic in social situations in any culture, even those with comparatively long histories of women’s rights (e.g. Scandinavia). Which is not to disagree with anything you’ve said above, only to observe that the goal remains very distant everywhere.

    2. Kudos Sharanya, for bravely tackling a taboo subject!

      “Can you recall the last time you heard the term not brought up in a hushed whisper, or with a disapproving tone or cluck of the tongue?”

      You couldn’t be more true. But, isn’t it the hypocrisy of the Indian situation? That scorns single women who go in for an abortion, but never even bothers to mutter about husbands and in-laws taking women to doctors for female foeticide (a convenience that is available solely because abortions are ethical)?

    3. Bravo for writing about this. Abortion is a personal choice, I believe, and the fact that the woman has to bear the trauma of shame apart from everything else makes things worse.

    4. While I agree with most of what you say here, I have to question your interpretation of the silence around abortion. I’m having a hard time imagining a society, no matter how ‘post-feminist’, where abortion is a common topic of social conversation (as Preeta points out, such societies don’t seem to exist). At the end of the day, an act that involves the ending of a human life (or of potential human life) is always going to be a traumatic and regretful experience for everyone concerned (and I mean everyone – not just the potential mother), and therefore not something to be blithely talked about in public. I’m entirely supportive of a woman’s right to have an abortion if she chooses, but I’d never bring up the topic with someone who had had an abortion, not because I disapprove of her choice, but because I recognize that it’s likely to be an emotional subject that it would be insensitive to raise. You wouldn’t discuss a former soldier’s war experiences with him / her, would you? That doesn’t mean you disapprove of his / her having fought in the war.

      I’m not saying that significant sections of society don’t disapprove of abortions. Only that abortion not being talked about, or being spoken of in hushed whispers, isn’t necessarily evidence of patriarchal disapproval. We need to be careful, I think, about not confuting shame and regret – there is no case for feeling shame over an abortion, but there is certainly reason to feel regret over it (at least in a world where prophylaxis is easy and abortion remains, for the most part, an invasive procedure), and that means that abortions will always be traumatic and therefore not an easy topic of conversation.

      And while it’s true that biology means that women bear the brunt of the trauma of abortion, it’s far from clear to me that abortion, as a topic of conversation, is any less taboo for men. If it were true that the silence around abortions was entirely reflective of gender disapproval then presumably men would have no issues (and face no censure) talking about abortions their wives / partners had had. Have you ever heard such a conversation? I haven’t.

      It is theoretically possible, of course, to get to the point where social norms no longer attach any value to the creation of new life / reproduction, at which point conception would become a casual and largely meaningless act, amenable to social conversation of the kind you imagine. I’m not sure that any society could get to that point and survive, though (or indeed, whether it would be desirable for a society to get there at all). In any case, getting to that point involves ethical issues that go far beyond questions of gender and / or female sexuality, as well as medical advances in the ease with which pregnancies can be terminated. It’s one thing to argue that women should be able to choose abortions without being a) restricted by the state b) subject to disproportionate scrutiny / censure by society. It’s a separate thing to argue that that choosing to have an abortion should be an act that does not require careful consideration or the examination of one’s own conscience (as it almost universally does today). And unless you’re seriously arguing for the latter, it’s hard to see how you expect abortion to become an easy topic for social conversation.

    5. Preeta — Thanks.

      Meena — You’re right! Double standards indeed. If a woman makes a choice about her own body and life, it’s problematic. If her mother-in-law (usually. I don’t mean to generalize) does it on her behalf, it’s all A-okay.

      Anindita — Thanks for the space to write and discuss these issues.

      Falstaff — Thanks for taking the time to respond at length. But I am not sure how you inferred that I’d like abortion to become a casual thing at all, in practice or social discussion. Conversations about abortion need not revolve only around shame, regret and trauma and be treated as skeletons in one’s closet is what I tried to put across. I quote myself: “This is not to say that abortion has no emotional bearing, but only that as a visceral and possibly sentimental issue, any woman who has to deal with it goes through enough without the interference of moral guardians.” Also, not all women experience emotional suffering as a result of an abortion, and I suspect that many more women wouldn’t if it weren’t for the social stigma attached to it. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that women were expected to feel bad after losing their virginities to men they weren’t married to. The idea of having to suffer punishment as a result of what one does with and to one’s body is frankly a little medieval. Whether a person deals with having an abortion by grieving or by celebrating or any variation in between is a personal thing, outside the scope of choice (since it’s emotional reaction), and should not have to be influenced by others’ views of what she has undergone. I’m afraid what you’ve inferred is pure extrapolation.

    6. Sharanya: I didn’t infer anything of the sort. My point is just that unless abortion becomes a casual thing (which you agree is not a good idea) it’s not likely to be something you hear talked about a lot. How can conversations about abortion not be about regret and trauma, when that’s what the experience of abortion is largely about (ironically, if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be much of an issue, would it?)?

      The problem is you continue to confute regret and trauma with shame and ‘skeleton’s in one’s closet’ – while the two things need not go together at all. I don’t know that the silence around abortions is any greater than or qualitatively different from the silence around death per se, which has nothing to do with shame and disapproval and everything to do with trauma and regret. If the silence around abortion really were a kind of punishment it would be medieval yes, but you’re assuming that it’s ‘punishment’ when it could simply be the choice of the person having the abortion not to talk about it.

      You say “whether a person deals with abortion by grieving or by celebrating or any variation in between is a personal thing, outside the scope of choice, and should not have to be influenced by others’ views of what she has undergone.” Yes. But what reason have you to believe that the reaction is influenced by others’ views? My point is that given the ethical issues involved and given our belief in the sanctity of life, the dominant emotional response will be one of grief, even without any social interference. So your contention that the silence around abortion is somehow symptomatic of social disapproval is (to use your phrase) pure extrapolation.

      As I said earlier, I don’t disagree with the main argument of your post. I just think your use of the silence around abortion as evidence of a particular social attitude is unsubstantiated and poorly thought through.

    7. Sharanya,

      You have written quite a remarkable and thoughtful post here. A lot of times I tried to relate to, not simply understand intellectually, the basic experience of a woman who finds herself (i.e., all women) in the midst of this world that comes pre-skewed to make a man’s view more communicable than a woman’s view.

      There are among men basic, primal instincts that are displayed with a surprising lack of a sufficient thinking mediation. Whatever women are fighting for appears to incite an instinct among men to fight against. It occurs to me that sometimes what women are fighting for are not the same as what men are fighting against, and the difference is subtle. There is an unadmittted helpless-ness among men at the fact that they really have no participation in the growth of the created life in a woman’s body. There is a deep sense of alienation that is usually swept aside by the usual emotional machinations of being a man. This does not surface. Amidst this suppressed alienation, a declaration such as, “Abortion is a personal choice” immediately raises the howls and growls and shrieks and shrills among men because they hear instead “Creation, or not, of this life should be under my control.” I won’t even ask the question that raises itself here: “Are women asserting the sole right for their bodies or are they asserting the sole right of say in the creation and abortion of another life?” because to separate a woman from her natural, biological trait to conceive would get us nowhere. But don’t you see the bone of contention here?

      I think – perhaps without sufficient proof – that men are more likely to consider it natural to treat a woman on an equal basis if women don’t have the power to conceive, or when a “third party” would take care of all this conceiving business so men can’t accuse women of taking matter of life in their sole hands.

      Again, I think not. Because the third paragraph from bottom in your post brings forth the very same phenomenon, of rape, that proves me wrong. Your thoughts in this paragraph in particular are spot on with those of mine.

      Perhaps we can reassure ourselves that women are not the only victims of the laggard enforcement of law in India. There are children too. The point of this is not to take the sense of urgency away from the topic at hand, but to put the burden where it belongs, on the enforcement side of the law. And this is just only one point, not the whole of it.

      Regards, Crazyfinger

    8. Falstaff — Firstly, please tell me where it is you got the idea that I “agree it is not a good idea” for abortion to become “a casual thing”. Saying “But I am not sure how you inferred that I’d like abortion to become a casual thing at all, in practice or social discussion” is not “agreeing”, so please don’t co-opt me into your point of view. This discussion would be much easier if you didn’t continue to attribute statements or views to me. Secondly, I don’t think there is a silence around abortion. Oh no. People have lots to say on the subject, but by and large it is nasty. Which was my whole point: why should a perfectly legal procedure continue to carry such stigma when it saves women’s lives?

      I think this is where your fundamental misreading took place: my post was not at all about whether or not women who have abortions discuss them/why women who have them don’t discuss them. In keeping with my belief that it is an individual freedom, I also believe that it’s perfectly fine for a woman to tell no one at all. The post was about the way in which abortion is still treated as a social ill, as something “loose women” have done, as an indication of a woman’s lack of morals. The easiest way to damage a single woman’s reputation in India is to spread a rumour about her multiple abortions. My apologies if anything in my writing lacked clarity.

      What reason have I to believe a person’s reaction is influenced by others’ views? Judgment affects us all. That’s just simple psychology. If all a woman hears about having an abortion is negative or nasty, and she is already in a vulnerable state of mind given the stigma attached to having the procedure done out of one’s own volition, then it is only natural that her reaction to her experience be influenced.

      You say: “At the end of the day, an act that involves the ending of a human life (or of potential human life) is always going to be a traumatic and regretful experience for everyone concerned.” And this is where I disagree with your views, as explained in my comment above. It is this kind of generalisation and expectation that all women’s experiences (and yes, those of their partners, their families, whoever else is involved) will be difficult, or must be difficult, that continues to keep this such a taboo act. Your view is actually a perfect example of my fundamental point. As per the law, the right to abortion is accepted in India. But piled atop this are the many social, religious and pseudo-ethical prejudices and expectations that keep women disempowered from embracing this choice in its entirety, as something they are entitled to and need not fear.

      Crazyfinger — Thanks.I definitely think that law enforcement should go hand in hand with social awareness and growth. And the “third party” is not such a far away idea. The progress of science is forcing and will continue to force difficult questions out into the open. For instance, the womb-for-hire phenomenon, in which women from developed countries pay for women from poorer countries (like India) to carry their embryo to term. This post was actually a spin-off on my thoughts about that issue, which were inconclusive. To me, in terms of dynamics, the issue is closely related to prostitution and pornography. I.e. if a woman has absolute rights over her body, and she chooses to make use of it in an industry that commoditizes it, is she still a victim of the system, or has she managed to subvert it altogether? Womb-for-hire is an issue that I hope someone willing to consider different viewpoints will write about for UV.

    9. Sharanya: Ok, now I’m really confused. Do you or don’t you think that it’s okay for abortion to become a casual thing? Yes or no, please. My apologies for wrongly attributing any views to you, but when you object to my claiming that you think abortion should become casual by saying that such an attribution is ‘pure extrapolation’ (emphasis mine) I naturally assume you don’t think so. I confess it hadn’t occured to me that you may have no views at all.

      And while we’re on the subject of wrong attribution, I have to say I’m more sinned against than sinning. I’ve never said anything about women not being entitled to an abortion or having to fear it. It is not my position that women ,i>should have to feel trauma over an abortion, only that as long as we’re talking about an invasive surgical procedure that involves the ending of a potential human life and is irreversible, there’s always likely to be some element of regret and trauma involved. It’s a descriptive claim, not a normative one. The idea that this may not always be so – that we could theoretically imagine a world where new life was not held sacred and where abortion was an easy, non-invasive procedure, was actually one that I put forward in my first comment, only pointing out that this had less to do with gender and more to do with a more general social emphasis on the sanctity of life. You’re the one who shot that down by saying I was attributing views to you you didn’t have. Apparently (but only apparently, FSM forbid that I wrongly attribute something to you again) now you do.

      It’s true that my reading of your post left me with the impression that what you were describing was closer to silence than active disapproval – ‘hushed whispers’ is not a phrase I usually associate with spite. This may be because I’ve personally almost never heard abortion talked about at all, though when I’ve heard it talked about it’s been mostly with sympathy rather than with censure. It’s possible my experience is unrepresentative. At any rate, if your point is that it would be nice if people did not actively harass women who undergo abortions then I agree (though I’m wondering why you didn’t just say so up front, instead of choosing to misinterpret me as you do here), though I still have only your word for the fact that such harassment happens. Some empirical evidence would be nice.

      One last thought (and I’m going to stop after this, I promise – specially as you’re clearly not interested in debating this at all): you start your post by saying:

      “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.”

      It’s a pretty sentiment, but it’s also disingenuous. You either believe it’s okay for people to disapprove of abortions, or you don’t. If you don’t, then why is that not a valid personal choice? If you do, then I’m curious how you think people who do disapprove of abortions should react when faced with the fact of one? Would it be fair to say that you’re suggesting that they should keep their disapproval to themselves and just keep silent when someone talks about having an abortion? Why should people who feel abortion is wrong (of whom, just to be clear, I’m NOT one – you can see my views on abortion here) not have the right to actively express that view? The sensible response to social censure is not to ask, or expect, other people to keep quiet about their strongly held beliefs. The sensible response to social censure is to accept that censure for what it is, take comfort in the legal rights we already have, and make our own decisions. To exist as an individual in society is to make personal decisions in the face of opposing (and potentially valid) viewpoints and live with the knowledge that other people disagree with you. I’m not sure how abortion, in a country where legal rights are safe-guarded, is any different.

      Put simply, assuming you’re right and the majority of people in society think abortion is wrong, and you feel that women shouldn’t have to deal with that, how do you suggest we make that happen? Are you suggesting that people who disapprove keep quiet about it and not express their disapproval (and how realistic is that)? Or are you saying they need to change their opinion, in which case don’t you think it makes more sense to discuss their reasons for disapproval rather than dismissing them as “social, religious and pseudo-ethical prejudices and expectations”? Your post throughout claims (I think, though again, who knows?) that we can move beyond pro-life and pro-choice. But without addressing and debating the pro-life issue we can’t keep people who are pro-life from disapproving of abortions, and I very much doubt that we can, or even should, force them to keep that view to themselves. So I’m curious to hear what your solution is.

    10. Falstaff, I think the attacks are getting a little personal perhaps…. Sharanya’s article doesn’t once use the word silence even once . I am a little clueless because I am unable to make out which article you are commenting upon any way? I did read through your comments (and quite early too, on the UV dashboard, of all places). Asking for empirical evidence comes across as very mean and petty, while the rest of your arguements sound quite lofty (although I am unable to really understand them)… I mean, what is the evidence that anyone can provide to say that people consider abortion a dirty deed that deserves their censure..

      The website of the Consortium for National Consensus on Medical Abortion in India, hosted at the prestigious AIIMS website says: (“http://www.aiims.edu/aiims/events/Gynaewebsite/ma_finalsite/index.html) “Approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all women have at least one induced abortion performed under unsafe conditions. The safety and efficacy of procedure used is therefore of global public health importance.”

      Why should abortions be under unsafe conditions for half or nearly one-third of our women? What makes women opt for unsafe abortions? Isn’t it the promise of anonymity? Isn’t it the fact that they shall have their privacy intact, even if their bodies are going to be at stake? Isn’t it the stigma associated with undergoing an abortion procedure that drives women into the hands of quacks? Isn’t this one of the reasons why the same website concludes that “development of abortion services in this country … will improve the reproductive health status of women in India.”

      I think in the absence of giving direct empircal evidence, the above statistics can prove a point or two that Sharanya has been trying to make.

    11. An excellent post. that tackles a lot of complexities around this issue and puts the finger on the crux of the issue.Yes this is one issue where women’s issues, perception and realitiesn differ in india. I would also add that caregiver’s (in hospitals) attitudes add to the list of woes of someone deciding in favor of an abortion. I have heard of cases of censure or strong opinions come from care givers (nurses , post-operative care) after a woman has undergone a rather painful and stressful decision. (physically,mentally and emotionally) . Reasons , Politics and choices of whether she does our of her own volition, or situation is another issue but there is a need for a certain change in humanitarian attitude on this.

    12. Wouldn’t whether abortions are talked about disapprovingly or not have something to do with whether the woman is married? In which case, it’s not really to do with disapproval of abortions, but with disapproval of premarital sex.

    13. Falstaff: I find it hard to understand some of the things you’ve said to support your point.

      “I’m entirely supportive of a woman’s right to have an abortion if she chooses, but I’d never bring up the topic with someone who had had an abortion, not because I disapprove of her choice, but because I recognize that it’s likely to be an emotional subject that it would be insensitive to raise. You wouldn’t discuss a former soldier’s war experiences with him / her, would you? That doesn’t mean you disapprove of his / her having fought in the war.”

      Yes, but what about if the woman brought it up? Perhaps, because she wanted to talk about it? Perhaps, because she needed to? What if the woman herself had conflicting feelings about it? Why should she have to remain silent because it’s uncomfortable for you because you have decided it is a sensitive topic. By your own admission, the trauma (if any), and the experience in any case, has been hers. So shouldn’t it be up to her to decide what and how much should be talked about?

      You said death is an uncomfortable topic. But we would hardly shush someone if they talked about the death of a loved one. When it comes to abortion, however, most women in India do not have the space or the choice to talk about it — at all. Even among close friends, they would feel scared of what the reaction would be. I don’t think Sharanya’s saying that we should be sitting around over coffee discussing it casually like say, ‘what movie should we watch today?’. Rather that it should be okay to talk about it like we would talk about other life experiences — such as death.

      I don’t think she’s espousing that it become ‘casual’ as in flippant. As you rightly pointed out, as long something is about life and death, it can never be. But that it be accepted as something that happens, quite often.

      You have said that the silence is linked to grief rather than social disapproval. I must firmly disagree. I don’t how it is where you are, but in India, a woman fears social ostracism if people ‘get to know’ that she has had an abortion. For people who are going through post trauma stress syndrome (and I have known such cases closely), it is harder to fight through this because they also can’t talk about it or even let on that something is wrong. The guilt she feels about the act gets mixed up with the guilt induced by society (‘everyone thinks it’s dastardly so i must be a horrible person’) and it gets hard for the person to differentiate between the two after a while. This makes coping even more difficult.

      Should people be allowed to voice disapproval? Yes, of course. But aren’t there many areas in which one must try to fight the atmosphere of disapproval in the first place? What about homophobia? What about disapproval of a woman’s right to wear what she wants, walk on the streets at night, marry when she wants? Can we stop people from disapproving of these things? No. But shouldn’t we try to voice why this disapproval is unnecessary and out of line?

      Ultimately, it boils down to the question of is a woman’s body her own or not? If one agrees that it is, then she should have the right to exercise choices with regard to it. Being given such a choice legally becomes a little futile when society refuses to support it — and she has to hide and sneak and feel like a criminal anyway.

      Like Vidya points out: I have heard of cases of censure or strong opinions come from care givers (nurses , post-operative care) after a woman has undergone a rather painful and stressful decision. (physically,mentally and emotionally) . Reasons , Politics and choices of whether she does our of her own volition, or situation is another issue but there is a need for a certain change in humanitarian attitude on this.

      I think that’s what Sharanya is asking for — an attitude of understanding rather than one of censure.

      Vidya: That makes me think of what HIV positive people often face even in hospitals. And that’s why they often keep it a secret — again with devastating results.

    14. Ummana: I think you’re right. A lot of the disapproval I think is linked to sex and the tremendous taboo around that when it occurs outside the marital context. It is unassailable proof that the girl was having sex when she clearly ‘should not have been’.

      Unwanted pregnancy is often viewed as a ‘punishment’ for ‘sinning’.

    15. Meena: Thanks for the link. You’re right – that is fairly indicative evidence. Thanks for sharing.

      As I say in my earlier comment, I may have misunderstood what Sharanya was originally saying. I was focusing on the paragraph that talked about how abortion was not a topic for discussion. To me, “hushed whispers, disapproving tone of voice and cluck of tongue” signals silence, or a reluctance to talk about something in public. It certainly does not suggest that women are being routinely maligned as being ‘loose women’ or that women’s reputations are being threatened by tales of mutliple abortions. If that was what Sharanya was really saying I wish she’d said so in her post, or in her first response – it would have made things clearer and avoided a lot of misunderstanding. I suppose for someone who knew the milieu Sharanya was talking about intimately it would have been clear that’s what she really meant – it certainly wasn’t to me (or from Preeta’s comment, to her). My interpretation was that all Sharanya was saying was that it wasn’t an easy or common topic of conversation.

      Given that interpretation, my first comment simply tried to make the point that the fact that abortions aren’t easy to talk about / aren’t commonly talked about doesn’t imply that people disapprove of them. Which made me wonder whether Sharanya (and others) weren’t reading too much into this silence. Once she finally made it clear that she wasn’t talking about silence / abortion not being an easy topic of conversation, but was actually talking about a consistent and malign pattern of attacks on women for having abortions, I agreed that that was wrong.

      You’re right that I probably overreacted a little. I apologize. But I’m still not sure why Sharanya couldn’t have simply clarified that she wasn’t talking about silence surrounding abortion and was talking about more active harassment, instead of taking us both on a wild good chase over ‘casualness’ and then needlessly attacking me for espousing points of view I’ve never supported.

      Anindita: Yes, of course, if a woman brought it up then it would be a valid topic for discussion. My point was / is simply that if the topic doesn’t come up in discussion then it could be because most women don’t want to talk about it, for reasons that don’t have to come from fear of social censure but could come from an unwillingness to talk about an unpleasant experience. Therefore the fact that abortion does not get talked about commonly in society (if true) does not necessarily imply that social disapproval exists. Anyway, all that’s irrelevant since Sharanya apparently wasn’t saying that there’s silence around abortions anyway.

      Regarding the second part of your comment – as I say in the post on my blog, I agree entirely that women should have the right to choose, and to the extent that their choices are limited by social censure that’s an issue. But the solution to that is not simply to wish social censure away. The problem is not that people disapprove, the problem is that social disapproval has force and is able to keep women from making choices they’d like to make. Why does the fact that society disapproves need to mean that women hide and sneak and feel criminal? Why does it matter what some stupid care-giver in a hospital says? There are lots of things that men do that society disapproves of, but it doesn’t stop them from doing them anyway. Obviously, there are good reasons why women are more vulnerable to social disapproval – reasons grounded in patriarchal institutions – but those are precisely the reasons we need to be going after. It’s the seeming acceptance of everyone on this discussion thread that women simply have to remain hostage to social approval and that it’s society’s perspective that we need to change, that I object to.

      The real issue here, according to me, is not the vocal disapproval of some sections of society, but the lack of empowerment of women to fight back against this disapproval, and the invisibility of those (and I remain unconvinced about disapproval of abortion being as widespread as it seems to be) who approve of a woman’s right to choose. What we should be working towards is a world where women are sufficiently empowered to be able to resist and ignore this disapproval, where we create abortion support groups or other institutional mechanisms to ensure that women who choose to have abortions get vocal and critical support. Not a world where those who have strong beliefs against abortion have been somehow magically muzzled but a world where we’re able to tell them where they get off. To me, that world is both better and more credible than one where everyone’s fakely polite to everyone else.

      None of which is to say that we shouldn’t also try to fight against the disapproval. By all means let’s try and change people’s minds about abortion. In order to fight the disapproval, though, you need to engage with it, examine where it comes from, be willing to discuss and debate it. And you need to provide reasons why the disapproval is not valid, not just reasons why people should keep their disapproval to themselves. Which is why starting by saying, effectively, that it’s okay if you disapprove of / condemn abortion is disingenuous. What we should be saying is – it’s NOT ok if you condemn abortion. If you disapprove of it, let’s talk about why you think it’s wrong. And having said that, we need to listen to what the other side says and provide rebuttals of what they’re saying. Not simply dismiss all their (strongly held) beliefs and opinions as “social, religious and pseudo-ethical prejudices and expectations”. That won’t get us anywhere.

    16. >>Why does it matter what some stupid care-giver in a hospital says?

      Why? Because caregivers cannot afford to be stupid.People can cluck away all they like when they are your neighbour but professionally it won’t work. Sensitization enforced as part of training is easily achievable in certain realities than say empowerment and a long-drawn engagement working towards changing individual’s minds. In the fight against HIV people don’t just go about engaging people to instantly
      stop using drugs/needles but give them needle packs.

      I think the answer to some of the other why’s is that hardly 20% of the providers are public sector and the rest is privately owned clinics/practices. So where does this huge chunk of population who cannot afford to pay the money but need a procedure go? To an unsafe place. Sure, this is not to say empowerment and the decisionmaking process etc is not achievable
      but we are sitting here and making a hundred assumptions that stem from priveleges of who we are in terms of education, social power,mobility, money. I am talking of this huge gap between the intellectualization in the urban intelligentsia and
      ground realities of the grassroot level where basic needs come first! A lot happens across primary health centers, Government hospitals that a great many of us are blissfully aware of. There are instances of apathy and scorn in medical care do drive young already fragile minds to dangerous decisions where they try to take their life. And that is why it matters what a stupid care-provider says.

    17. vidya: “Sensitization enforced as part of training is easily achievable in certain realities”

      Really? What realities would these be? How easy do you think it is to make nurses in government hospitals behave more sensitively towards patients? How exactly would you go about doing this? And do you really think training is all that is required to make someone who thinks abortions are wrong not say so? I’d think you’d need evaluations, incentives – the whole works. Any ideas on how you would measure this behavior for performance appraisals, or what incentives you could offer within the government system? Any examples of initiatives within the Indian public health system that have actually succeeded in doing this? If it’s easily achievable someone must have done it, no? In the fight against HIV (to use your example) we don’t sit around hoping that government hospital employees will become more sensitive and start telling people more about AIDS. We set up private non-profit institutions that go out and spread awareness and provide support to people at risk.

      As for your second point, I’m not sure what the logical connection there is. The point that legal rights may be meaningless without economic empowerment is well taken – it doesn’t help to have a law allowing women to have abortions if the majority of them can’t afford one. I agree entirely that the availability of safe, affordable abortions is an important issue. It may even be more important than all this social censure of unmarried women we’ve been talking about in this discussion thread. But I’m not sure how you got from that to the attitude of the care-provider. Are you saying that care-providers in public clinics are more likely to be insensitive than those in private clinics?

      And which do you think is the more realistic and practical way to save all these “young already fragile minds” who are driven to “dangerous decisions where they try to take their life”? Protecting them from all possible disapproval by somehow magically making everyone respect their choices and not express their strongly felt disapproval, or creating institutions and non-profit organizations that will provide support and counseling to these women so they can navigate these decisions more easily. I pick the latter. You’re free to choose whatever you think will work.

    18. what falstaff said…

    19. I completely agree with the article posted, censure is never far away when a woman decides to terminate a pregnancy when she doesn’t want a child. The same people will however blithely acquiesce (in this country at any rate) to the termination of a pregnancy where the foetus is of the “wrong” gender. As an aside we should realise that very soon when McCain is elected president, he will appoint conservative justices to the Supreme court bench and it seems like Roe vs Wade will be overturned. It would be a disaster for women in the States so I think that this celebration is premature, the fight against intolerance is not over. As a famous bumper sticker said “If you are against abortion, don’t have one”.

    20. I think that the trends of sexual liberation we seen in Indian youth today are connected directly to how we would like to think about abortion. There are theories on what makes a foetus alive and what doesn’t. Such knowledge will definitely make things clearer for lawmakers regarding what is considered a legal abortion and what is not.

      Having said that, the responsibility for the child lies with the creators of the child and therefore, people who are in favour of abortion should realize that they are being irresponsible if they give into their instincts without thinking about the consequences of their actions. It is easier to perpetrate the idea that sex for pleasure is alright in a country like America, whose culture is a young one. In India, where the culture is as old as civilization itself, this is rather more difficult. The traditionalists in the USA rebel against the scientific institutions and the organizations which are pro-abortion, because the US allows free speech.

      I believe that part of the reason Indians are discussing these issues (apart from the sexual revolution) is that the Indian mind is now more attuned than ever to issues facing the United states, which air on its television channels or its mass media.

      A country like India, on an economic, rather than on an ethical level should probably consent to abortions, provided they are done in accordance with a well defined, just and scientific law.

    21. i think that all people should have theur own choice bout abortions

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