Do I own my stomach, my intestines, the liver and the rest? I think I do, morally and legally. I can donate one of these organs (even sell it on the sly) or will my entire cadaver to medical students after my death. That signifies an ownership beyond life. So, I have absolute property rights over my body because I am a man. A woman doesn’t own her uterus. She has no right over the womb or what grows in it? A father is only an idea legitimised by panchayats and Parliament, whereas a mother is a biological reality. And the foetus is a part of the whole that the mother is. She ought to be the sole owner and arbiter of the womb and what lies in it. But our judiciary will not let the mother take ownership of her body. Morality, law and societal sanctions circumscribe her sexual and reproductive rights.
Even within the normal bounds of our insensitive, patriarchal society, it is impossible to understand the position of our courts on foetuses that are sick. Recently, a woman sought permission to terminate her pregnancy as the foetus was found to have Down’s syndrome. By the time it was medically determined that the foetus was indeed sick, the pregnancy was well past the 20-week limit prescribed by law. It was not the woman’s fault. But the court ruled that she should give birth to a child with Down’s syndrome and take care of it for the rest of its life or hers, whoever dies first. Now, last week the court made a similar ruling. A Mumbai resident wanted to terminate her foetus, which has a condition called Arnold Chiari Type II syndrome. But the court will not allow abortion because the foetus is 27 weeks old.
Such orders cause complete despair. Forget about the reproductive rights of a woman that militate against the inherent patriarchy of our society. This is about the misery of bringing up a congenitally ill person. The courts probably have no idea what it means to a young woman and those around her, the family, to have a person who cannot simply cope with life. Someone with Down’s syndrome, in plain speak, is a person who cannot lead a normal life. Some of them do acquire meagre life skills, but those are wholly inadequate to face a cruel mob such as ours in a bus or a train. They need attention from family or have to be institutionalised for life. The second case of the foetus with Arnold Chiari syndrome is that of a family which will have to give constant care for a bed-ridden patient, who will never get up. And poverty doesn’t help in these situations. Only money can buy medicines, care or institutional support. So, when a mother cries aloud wishing death for her yet-to-be born baby, we need to understand she is talking about a part of herself that she can’t afford to keep.
Hopefully, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act will get amended soon and the time limit for abortion will get extended from 20 to 24 weeks. But that doesn’t address the question. What if a pregnant woman gets to know about her sick foetus only in week 25? We need to hand over the ownership of the womb to the woman and that is the only solution for a dilemma—to abort or not—that is intensely personal. Let those who, out of religious belief, want to wallow in their misery do it. But the decision ought not to be the court’s.