By Ananya Saha:
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.
Right to Life, Marge Piercy
I remember the Yuletide of the previous year when I visited one of the neighbourhood churches of JNU for the yearly ritual of lighting candles. In fact, I am a frequent visitor. Churches with their ambience of perfect quiescence have always enthralled me. The establishment also runs an education program for children of slender means to which I have contributed humbly. Last Christmas, the church was also running a campaign against abortion to which I was being subtly coerced to contribute. But that is the last thing that I; like many women would be brainwashed in favour of. Hence, with a polite yet firm refusal, I took my leave. That particular setting was not exactly conducive for a debate regarding ethics. Or perhaps it was but propriety that got the better of me which causes the present outpour, with contextual references to Piercy’s poems. For those who are unfamiliar, Marge Piercy is an American author and social activist from the 70-80’s.
A woman’s body has always been a site of contention. To restrict her sensuality, the multifarious social institutions have straight jacketed it into ‘roles’. The eternal caregiver/mother/nurturer is one such role that has been glorified to the point of extortion. The woman’s womb is necessary for procreation but she has no right over it. One might raise the question why I choose to quote an American poet while my subjective reality is tethered to an Indian context. The answer; firstly, she is a favourite of mine for the sheer power of her words. Secondly, the issues she raises, I believe, are universal.
Right now, the woman I speak of is the normative sexual nomenclature; free of the socially gendered roles attached to her. A woman in India and in many other countries on the map mostly cannot even speak about abortion apart from an academic context. To get one for her out in the open, devoid of sneers and active churning of the rumour mill is out of the question. The gynaecologist would be the first one to breach the barriers of professional behaviour and ask untoward questions about their marital status. I can only hope that exceptions exist and keep growing in numbers. And who would actually dare to say, ‘it is none of your business’ when one is putting her body in that person’s care? She is quite at the doctor’s mercy so to speak.
This naturally leads to the impulse for absolute privacy, followed by impulsive decisions to visit the lethal quack or country doctors with unsanitary methods. It is a reality that is causing deaths at an alarming rate as the woman tries to avoid the inevitable ‘slut-shaming’. People are often brainwashed to the extreme degree that they do not bother to excavate proper information. Or it can be that they are simply nonchalant. Thus, the next time one is sharing a pro-life post on social media for the sake of it, think about the damage your half-hearted actions are doing to someone.
Whether or not the embryo can feel pain is still a matter of medical debate. We do not have definite proof. Some researchers argue that there is a possibility that the foetus can feel pain in the second trimester. Some others say that it is not feasible till the third. The safe abortion is mostly carried out in the first semester. But the right of a woman on her body is inherent and is not to be conferred on a mere technicality. She is the one who runs the risks while she carries. In the words of Rachel, our favourite character from F.R.I.E.N.D.S, ‘no uterus, no opinion.’ If you are really pro-life, do not stop the consensual woman from exercising the rights on her body and removing the tadpole sized foetus which might not even be sentient. It might kill her. If she lives, she can try to be a mother again when she feels ready. If you are pro-life, do not stop a woman if she, single or otherwise, wants to adopt a child from a hapless orphanage where s/he might really die due to lack of care. But adoption or single-motherhood is not my present concern. Piercy gets the satire on and I quote;
‘You value children so dearly
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
orphanages are empty.‘ (Right to Life)
And one must remember that ‘pro-life’ fanaticism did kill Savita Halappanavar in Catholic Ireland. She was ‘acceptably married’ and ‘rightfully pregnant’ according to patriarchal hierarchies. Yet she was disallowed an abortion which was vital for her life with the excuse of religion. Incidentally this was the church. But it could have been any other form of religious institutional dogma as well. Should the ‘pro’ have not been in favour of the life that was already there instead of the life that was not even born?
A woman might choose to save the foetus over her own life and risk a difficult childbirth. That’s her decision. Others might not and it does not make them diabolical minions of anti-Christ. Abortion is not easy for a woman; either physically or psychologically. She needs genuine support and respect for privacy. Neither advocates of law nor religion have the rights to prescribe to or circumscribe the woman’s bodily rights. The temple and the priestess are one and no intermediary is required to indoctrinate within. I end with Piercy’s lines from The Sabbath of Mutual Respect;
Doorways are sacred to women for we
are the doorways of life and we must choose
what comes in and what goes out. Freedom
is our real abundance.