Will It Take A Feminist Anarchy To Solve India’s Reproductive Health Crisis?

Posted by Roshni Kalyan in Human Rights, Politics, Staff Picks
February 24, 2017

I would want to apologise in advance for using the ‘F word’, which is not a very popular term if one wants to pander to the sensibilities of certain readers.

However, one must know that aesthetics and sensibilities mean very little to a woman of a low socio-economic standing, who, after a lot of contemplation and worry, has finally decided to go for an unsafe abortion. That fear right there is universal.

There are proclaimed supporters of pro-women movements, critical thinkers – and then, there are those in the limbo of being unable to decide if women indeed need these consciously announced and deliberate movements. Some of these women are increasingly calling themselves ‘humanists’.

There are innumerable cases to illustrate the very obvious phenomenon of making women’s bodies a ‘gymnasium’ for those in power, so that they can flex their official authority, or worse, inflict their social authority on what should be an individual’s decision. For the sake of brevity and hope, I have picked only a few recent examples for your perusal.

The Triumph Of Misogyny

News agencies all around the world have been reporting about Donald Trump’s anti-abortion stand. He has revoked foreign abortion aid which translates to funds being scrapped, and this spells cascading doom for international Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) actively involved with women’s reproductive health or just offering abortion advice and post-abortive care. This has forced NGOs operating in developing countries to shut down, just because they are involved in reproductive health issues and are providing contraceptives to rural men and women.

According to Marie Stopes, an international NGO providing contraception and safe abortion services, this move during Trump’s first term could cause 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.2 million abortions, 2.1 million unsafe abortions, and 21,700 maternal deaths. The icing on the melting cake of women’s reproductive health is the fact that about 1.5 million women can’t be given contraception.

The deal between contraception and abortion should logically be a sweet one. Safe sexual practices like using condoms or even the pill could do away with the need for abortion. In an interview, Donald Trump stated that he was definitely against abortion and even emphasised on the need for ‘some form of punishment’ to the woman, but later corrected it by saying that he meant that doctors involved should be punished by the law.

Oh the irony! Donald Trump signs the Anti-Abortion Bill in the presence of only male members.

The politics and vote-bank dimensions make this area a jackpot for Trump. This move was highly lauded by the white evangelicals (an overwhelming 80% of the demographic voted for the Republican Party), conservatives and pro-life activists. Note that ‘life’ here refers to that of the progeny.

Why Is This An Issue?

It is because illegal abortions are rampant in many parts of the world – a count of about 21.6 million worldwide and a 13% maternal mortality rate, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) study in 2008.

Piercing the amniotic sac with a sharp tool, over the counter (OTC) drugs and even chilli concoctions are just some of the methods that are used to abort outside clinics. The estimated count of women undergoing illegal, unsafe abortion procedures could be as high as four million (two-thirds of the estimated count of seven million women undergoing abortion) in India. The economic and social loss to the community and country are only portions of the total fallout, which also includes the loss of lives and opportunities.

In a recent case, the Supreme Court of India allowed a minor (a rape victim) to abort a 24-week baby, owing to the abnormality of the foetus and the possible physical and mental danger to both mother and progeny. This was seen as a landmark judgement owing to the fact that even under special circumstances, abortion within a maximum period of only 20 weeks is legally permissible.

“Amidst the swarm of debates, judgements and reactions, it is apparent that society still has a claim to the uterus and the bodies of women.”

There have been enough reports about mothers succumbing to risky pregnancies as they are not allowed to go in for abortion, as seen in the infamous case of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. She died of a septic miscarriage after a 17 weeks’ gestation period, as she was denied an abortion in Ireland, owing to the country’s abortion laws.

Illegal abortions performed in decrepit clinics are an entirely grim saga of their own. Religion, policy, law, medicine and society turn out to be the bane of a woman’s life – literally! Such incidents are a flagrant violation of not just the right of a woman, but also the basic right of a human to ensure self-preservation. This is a greater implication on humanity and choice. It is not just about the laws, abortion or women. It is about exercising the freedom of one’s body. This should be a right, and not a privilege.

Missing The Forest For The Trees

In India, the new Surrogacy Regulation Bill 2016 proposes to make commercial surrogacy/rent-a-womb unlawful. It also aims at making altruistic surrogacy available only for those Indian couples who have been married for a minimum of five years and can’t have children naturally or through other listed reproductive technologies. This means that such a couple can approach a close relative of theirs, a willing woman between 25-35 years of age who is married and has already birthed a child, and shall therefore not be a surrogate mother more than once in her lifetime. This is quite the stalemate for couples seeking children.

The government states that its intention is to curb monetary exploitation by way of coercion and safeguard the health of socio-economically backward women, who account for the majority of surrogate mothers in the commercial surrogacy market, besides also protecting the child from abandonment and legal disputes. Sushma Swaraj, the External Affairs Minister and a supporter of this Union bill, was dismissive of celebrities going in for surrogacy when she said: “I am sad to say that what was started to fulfil a necessity is now treated as fashion.

According to surveys, the cost of a surrogacy is about ₹10 lakhs and surrogate mothers earn up to ₹4 lakhs. The impoverished surrogates who rent their womb earn an amount which is worth more than 10 years’ of their normal salaries. This is a typical example of how power in the hands (of even a woman) misses the forest for the trees in addressing real world problems. Dogma refuses to see the ramifications of these actions in the lives of people who will be hit the hardest.

“Bra-burning, second-wave feminism, guerilla movements are all ridiculed for their forced intensities, but are they more intense than putting a woman’s life in peril?”

Are these more intense than denying her an opportunity? Are these more ridiculous than a bunch of misinformed politicians trying to pass judgement on an issue they don’t understand?

The day of anarchy isn’t far. Those with resources and access to information will find a way; those without will increasingly go to more shadowy by-lanes and adopt unsafe practices. In a system that is unfavourable to one’s own existence, a feminist anarchy is inevitable and necessary.

Bribes will be paid, laws will be flouted. Illegally safeguarding one’s well-being will come to be accepted as morally right. As it is, the world doesn’t have a lot of alternative options to choose from.

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Image Source : Mazi Nwankama Nwankama, Victor Mangbon/Facebook

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