How to abort a debate

Posted on November 28, 2012 by Editor,

Ammu Joseph

A fortnight after news about Savita Halappanavar’s tragic, untimely and probably avoidable death in a hospital in Ireland caught the attention of the media in India and elsewhere, NDTV’s The Big Fight took on the abortion debate and botched it.

The title of the show – “Abortion debate: Pro-life or pro-choice?” – and anchor Vikram Chandra’s opening remarks, using terminology reflecting the terms of the debate in the U.S.A. rather than in India, set the tone for an ill-informed discussion that had little to do with the realities on the ground in this country.

The choice of panellists further skewed the picture.  By including conservative representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and Islam on the six-member panel, the stage was all set for the big fight, but one that is largely irrelevant in an avowedly secular nation which legislated a Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act over four decades ago.

With both the representatives of the medical profession on the panel attached to corporate hospitals in the capital, the discussion did not take into account the reproductive health, experiences and concerns of poor women, or even lower middle class women, in rural or urban areas.

The “pro-choice” view was represented on the panel (via video) by an articulate young woman with strong opinions but no apparent locus standi other than that of any lay woman in the studio audience.  Dr. Meenakshi Sahuta’s attempts to explain the need for abortion services were often cut off by interruptions.

The only member of the panel who could have provided an informed perspective on the issue (Dr. Sabu George) barely got a word in edgeways, with the anchor allowing the discussion to be dominated by a belligerent Fr. Dominic Emmanuel, an obfuscating Dr. Puneet Bedi and a relatively lightweight Nethra Raghuraman.

Another problem with the debate was its conflation of abortion with sex-selective abortion without any serious attempt to clarify the complex histories and arguments that distinguish the two issues, which are governed by separate laws for a reason (the latter by the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act).  To his credit, Sabu George – who has campaigned long and hard against sex determination tests leading to the selective abortion of female foetuses, but argues for a liberal abortion law – did try, but his subtle points were more or less lost in the din.

One wonders how these panels are assembled.  Were neither of the editors nor any of the contributors to the 2007 book, “Abortion in India:  Ground Realities,” available – in Delhi or via video?  Did anyone involved in planning the programme come across informative and insightful, not to mention relatively recent, articles such as this one,  “Abortion as a Feminist Issue,” and try to get the Delhi-based writer to participate in the debate?  How about the director of the National Rural Health Mission, who has been quoted as saying that abortion-related deaths (approximately 4600 annually) contribute to eight per cent of all maternal deaths in India?  Or a member of the committee constituted in 2006 to recommend amendments to the MTP Act?

What about members of the several organisations in Delhi (and elsewhere) working on women’s and health rights issues, including reproductive health and rights, who could have contributed perspectives based on the real-life experiences of women who are not the “socialites” who, according to Dr. Bedi, choose to have abortions to avoid a delivery date that clashes with “a family wedding” or “an Alaskan cruise holiday?”

Fr. Dominic rudely and repeatedly interrupted Nethra Raghuraman with exclamations about her “bizarre arguments.”  However, the really bizarre contributions came from elsewhere.  His own were too predictable to qualify.  But Dr. Bedi began his analysis of the MTP Act with the statement that “abortion is not legal in this country, medical termination of pregnancy is.”  At one stage Maulana Syed Kalbe Rushaid Rizvi, who seemed to be in broad agreement with Fr. Dominic’s stand, appeared to be arguing against abortion even in the case of a pregnancy caused by rape.  I could have heard wrong but I think he not only said that being raped does not give anyone the right to take a life, but actually went on to ask how a raped woman would be able to fight a court case without a child to prove that the crime took place.

The fact is that despite being among the first countries to legalise induced abortion, India has a disgracefully high abortion-related death rate, mainly thanks to the prevalence of unsafe abortions, which is clearly linked to the non-availability or lack of accessibility of safe abortion services.  The country recorded 6.5 million abortions in 2008, of which two-thirds or 66% were deemed unsafe.  Instead of debating the reasons for these appalling figures and what can be done about them, the recent big fight on abortion was mostly sound and fury signifying next to nothing.