The politics of abortion – II

Part I of this piece reviewed the Indian law on the regulation of reproduction, and I ended up making the point that if the law were to be based on autonomy, it would decriminalise both abortion and the use of PNDTs. While I agree with Rohit’s statement that the best way to reduce female foeticide is by educating and empowering women, I don’t think that the discussion is complete at that point.

At the end of the day, Rohit’s article is about why sex-determination should be legal, and he argues that any argument for abortion rights based on women’s autonomy cannot co-exist with an argument that the State must take measures to check female foeticide. This is, however, the typical liberal fallacy: an assumption that when we argue for a right, we are asking for mere liberty, or decriminalisation.

We argue that women should have the right to make a decision regarding whether or not to have an abortion, because they are autonomous individuals with rights over their own bodies. As autonomous individuals, they are entitled to full and complete information regarding their bodies and what the consequences of either choice could be. Women who are looking for options other than abortion should be given as many choices as possible, and full information about these choices too.

Thus, the State has a duty not only to recognise women’s autonomy and grant them the liberty to make reproduction decisions, but also to enable them to exercise that autonomy and realise the fruits of that liberty. Thus, the decriminalisation of abortion and PNDTs is not enough; it has to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that abortion decisions are made autonomously by women. Political will needs to be bent to the idea of empowering women to make these decisions, and that means making sex-selective abortion (which is based in a norm of women’s inferiority) unacceptable – socially, economically and politically. It requires the creation of a comprehensive publicly-funded reproductive healthcare system, which maintains confidentiality and provides counseling and advisory services. It needs the creation of a social security system that provides women who wish to defy their families with an alternative. The creation of a childcare system that gives women the option to give birth to female children whom they are unable to care for becomes essential.

As for what the law can do about female foeticide, let us remember that the problem with female foeticide is not that it is foeticide (which, as Rohit reminds us, is necessary to abortion), but that it is directed against foetuses that are female as punishment for their ‘femaleness': an embodiment of the sentiment that women don’t deserve to live. If making sex-selective abortion illegal is the only manner in which the law can act to influence its occurrence, the law can do nothing: it is hampered by the impossibility of administration. But none of the list of necessary preliminaries that I’ve managed to come up with can come into existence without law, either.

It is about time we stop looking at the issue of reproductive rights as one of the grant of a liberty, and start looking at it as a matter of putting power in the hands in which it belongs: a matter, in short, of politics.

2 Responses

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for your comments.

    You argue,

    ”Thus, the decriminalisation of abortion and PNDTs is not enough; it has to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that abortion decisions are made autonomously by women.”

    I would disagree. Social change cannot be state-mandated. The state cannot usurp the function of the civil society. Reproductive rights are a societal function, merely passing of a law cannot change the situation. Why?

    because laws work best when they address what a minority wants. If murder was a favored tool for social negotiation, no law against murder would be effective. Because it is not; state can intervene effectively. (In most cases. ) This is not true for reproductive rights/abortion e.t.c

    ”It requires the creation of a comprehensive publicly-funded reproductive healthcare system, which maintains confidentiality and provides counseling and advisory services”

    But such a public funded network already exists! You assume that women are against selective foeticide themselves and are forced to undergo it under familial pressures. I would argue that societal pressures are exerted much more subtely; those women who are in a position to claim reproductive rights are already empowered via education/economic independence. Those who are not so privileged are hardly likely to exercise that right merely due to presence of sex counselors.

    Ditto for the rest of your ideas.

    ”It is about time we stop looking at the issue of reproductive rights as one of the grant of a liberty, and start looking at it as a matter of putting power in the hands in which it belongs: a matter, in short, of politics.”

    Now, this is a philosophical difference. I think power flows from liberty; and from that view point the right to autonomy over one’s bodies is the most basic function of liberty.

    In short, I don’t agree with this sentiment that power can be given–rather, it must be claimed.

    Finally, my post was about making sex-determination legal only because I believe abortion is a basic human right and the state or the society has no business telling anyone whether they should abort their babies or not. If they don’t have that right, I fail to see why and how they can decide the gender of the child being aborted.

  2. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your comment, but here goes. Let me start by agreeing with you – the right to decide whether or not you will have a baby should be a basic human right, and the State has no right to make that decision for you. Sadly, the Indian State doesn’t agree: as I pointed out, our law still makes abortion a privilege rather than a right.

    As for the rest of your comment, I think it stems from a misunderstanding – my point is that we need to stop looking at the law as something that can only mandate/prohibit, and see it as something that can create enabling structures. I do believe that patriarchy (which is more than ‘familial’ or ‘societal’ pressures) is the root of the practice of sex-selective foeticide. And again, I don’t think ‘empowerment’ as you call it is enough to combat the patriarchy – after all, the pressures are much more subtle than that.

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