Feticide. Saving the girl child. Killing in the womb.
I was at the movies the other day. Before the main reel began to roll, they showed us a short film of a female fetus singing from the womb to her parents. That she wanted to live. That she wanted to grow into a real person.
Aamir Khan’s TV talk show, Satyamev Jayate, started operations in Season 1 with an episode focusing on this issue. It was an instant hit. You can watch the full episode here:
They’re writing anthems to ‘save the girl child’. Almost every other Bollywood actress wants to ‘give female fetuses a chance to live’. In schools, no cultural day is complete without a play or a song dedicated to the ‘girl child’. In 2003, filmmaker Manish Jha made a movie called Matrubhoomi – A Nation Without Women, which received almost universal critical acclaim.
High on Emotion
It’s hard not to be swayed by images of girls pleading for their right to live. But just for a second, let’s look at the word feticide. Do you notice that it sounds a lot like genocide, infanticide, matricide and homicide, all of which are heinous crimes? Do you not think that it carries within it connotations of murder? After all, we already had a perfectly serviceable word called ‘abortion’ which is neutral and less emotionally charged. Did we need the word ‘feticide’? And do we need words such as ‘killing in the womb’ and ‘saving the girl child’?
(As a reminder, Appeal to Emotion was one of our Six Logical Fallacies To Avoid)
What’s in a word, you may say. Everything. Words carry images. They form meanings. A word like ‘patriarchy’ can never mean equality. Neither can a word like ‘feminism’ – which is made up of ‘femina’ (for women) and ‘ism’ (for ideology). The problem with choosing the wrong words is that you alienate the other side, and you have to spend inordinate amounts of time first explaining yourself. Have you seen how many feminism debates degenerate into ‘What do you think feminism is?’ or ‘You don’t know what feminism is’?
Do you think that would happen with the same regularity if we’d stuck to good old ‘equality’ instead?
What’s wrong with using emotion?
I think the same thing happens with abortion. Calling it feticide is injecting it with false emotion. So are phrases such as ‘killing the girl child’, because a fetus – at least according to our legal frameworks today – is not yet a child. Here’s a short excerpt from the Wikipedia entry for Female Feticide in India:
According to a 2007 study by MacPherson, prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT Act) was highly publicized by NGOs and the government. Many of the ads used depicted abortion as violent, creating fear of abortion itself within the population. The ads focused on the religious and moral shame associated with abortion. MacPherson claims this media campaign was not effective because some perceived this as an attack on their character, leading to many becoming closed off, rather than opening a dialogue about the issue.
This process of causing the other side to ‘close off’ happens in many debates. Often it begins with one side convinced that the other side is wrong – not just about the issue, but ethically. Only when accusations stop can conversations begin.
Using emotional images to take sides on a complex issue will only postpone the questions we must all ask ourselves. And somehow answer them.
- Do fetuses have rights?
- How do we balance the rights of a mother (to abort) and the rights of a fetus (to resist abortion)?
- When does a fetus become a ‘child’? Right from conception? Or at a later stage of gestation? In short, how do we define ‘life’ so that we can better define ‘right to life’?
What’s the situation now?
In the current legal environment in India, a woman has a right to abort if:
- The continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater than if the pregnancy were terminated
- The termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman
- The continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman
- The continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, or injury to the physical or mental health of any existing child of the family of the pregnant woman
- There is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.
- Or in emergency, certified by the operating practitioner as immediately necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
Notice how the abortion law at present is heavily loaded towards protecting the rights of the mother? And how generic the wording is? A certificate from the operating medical officer saying the woman will be at ‘grave mental health’ risk should not be too hard to acquire, especially with a few crisp notes changing hands under the table.
There are good reasons why the law favours the mother. For one, pregnancy is no walk in the park (though I speak from second hand experience here). Physically and emotionally, it is by all accounts a daunting, draining process. There may be instances where the only way to save the mother’s life is to abort. And for another, a mother who became willingly pregnant in Month Zero may find herself in a unforeseen social situation in Month Five which makes giving birth a frightening prospect.
The issue of fetal rights
In effect, then, in our country the fetus has no rights until it is born. That means that until the umbilical cord is cut, the fetus belongs to the parents, and does not have the right to live. Yes, there are guidelines that abortions beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy need opinions of two doctors instead of one, but there is no law protecting a fetus.
When we talk of fetal rights, there is a whole spectrum of options:
- We say that a fetus becomes a living being the moment it is conceived. This is equivalent to making abortion illegal.
- We say that a fetus acquires rights as a living being at some stage during pregnancy. Various countries define this ‘stage’ differently. Some say the first timester, some say the last four weeks, and others say pre-natal development.
- We say that the fetus has no rights until physical birth. This is equivalent to making abortion available on request without any question (like in Denmark and Sweden).
I think these are the points of debate with the issue of female feticide. Until we talk about these issues and come to a consensus, no amount of emotion-mongering will get to the root of the issue. Right now we’ve made gender-based abortion illegal. But there is a lot of wriggle room there. Those who abort for gender reasons only have to cite this or that other ‘legal’ reason and get it done. By making it illegal, ironically, we’ve driven it underground. Today, we have no way of knowing just how many abortions are caused due to gender issues and how many are ‘valid’.
Yes, we will paper over the cracks by banning sonography centers (as happened in Rajasthan following the Satyamev Jayate episode). We will give incentives to give birth to a girl child. We will give cash rewards for raising a daughter and getting her educated. But these are all populist, artificial solutions.
The real answers can come only from asking the important questions.
What do you think? In your opinion, when does life begin? When does a human being acquire the right to live? In the balance between a mother’s rights and fetus’s rights, where do you think we should draw the line?
Image Courtesy: Questions on Islam