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.

The politics of birth control – I

Blr Bytes recently sent me this link, and it provided me with the impetus to write about something I’ve been meaning to address for a while: birth control. Rohit’s article is partly a response to Pamela Philipose’s piece in the Indian Express, but is also a well-argued case for legalising sex-determination, on the same grounds as are used to argue for women’s reproductive rights – primarily, in western discourse, the right to abortion.

The western (primarily American) debate on abortion rights has a number of themes: female reproductive health, reproductive autonomy, foetal ‘rights’, paternal rights. People who self-identify as feminists and ‘women activists’, as Rohit calls them, have taken positions on both sides of the debate. The legal right has been rooted in many things, from the right to privacy to women’s autonomy. In India, on the other hand, the law on abortion starts not with the Medical termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, but with the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The IPC makes it an offence to terminate a pregnancy, and the MTP Act, taking note of the fact that this merely led to unsafe terminations, made it legal for pregnancies to be terminated by registered medical practitioner(s) in certain circumstances. The MTP Act is, therefore, conferring the privilege of legality upon certain kinds of abortions. The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT Act) is meant to regulate the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques, and especially to criminalise their use for sex-determination. The privilege of legality of the use of prenatal diagnostic technology is again granted selectively, to ‘approved’ persons, for ‘approved’ reasons.

Thus the law in India quite shamelessly seeks to regulate reproduction – it takes a number of crucial decisions out of the hands of parents and puts them in the hands of the State, or of doctors. It takes the power to make decisions about reproduction away from women, and on the basis of their disempowerment, makes the use of certain kinds of technology unavailable to them as well. To give them back the power, and ensure that they have the autonomy to use it, the State would have to decriminalise both abortion and the use of PNDTs.

In Part II (which I don’t have time to write just now)

What then, of female foeticide? If abortion and PNDTs are decriminalised, there would be no way to ensure that sex-selective abortions didn’t take place, would there?