Reversing Roe is the title of a documentary which tells the story of the American women’s struggle for a right to abortion. The battle emerged from the feminists’ claim of “My Body, My Choice” – an example of what Siddhartha Mukherji in The Emperor of Maladies calls “political feminism birthing medical feminism”. Women fighting for the right to abortion wanted to reclaim power over their own bodies; they wanted the right to choose whether or not to have a child, the right to have an abortion if they had to.
The anti-abortionists – an equally large number – just as passionately believed that abortion was murder and that women who went in for abortion, as well as their doctors, were murderers of innocent children. They termed themselves pro-lifers, but obviously regarded the child’s life as more valuable than the mother’s. They based their opposition to abortion on religious grounds, often quoting the Bible to bolster their arguments.
However, in a 1973 case, Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court of the USA, declared that abortion was legal throughout the United States. The states could no longer legislate against abortion. But state legislatures could, and did, chip away at the right, making it as hard as possible for women to avail themselves of the right to abortion in certain States. The pro-life people targeted abortion clinics, vandalised them, tried to frighten away patients, and even killed some doctors who practiced abortion.
The issue divided the country politically, with Republicans being mostly “pro-life” and Democrats, “pro-choice”. Finally this year, nearly fifty years after abortion had been legalised, it was once again criminalised, depriving women who desired abortion or proper medical care, forcing them yet again to go to shady places where unskilled men and women perform the procedure – often a botched one, resulting perhaps in the woman’s inability to conceive in future, or even in her death. Now, no exceptions have been made for babies born of rape, incest or babies with serious congenital problems; women who need an abortion for these reasons are left without help.
Tremendous opposition to women’s autonomy
To an outsider like me, this story seems to be incredible on many counts. I, as a citizen of a country which legalised abortion in 1971, am amazed, astonished, and baffled by the attitude of a wealthy progressive country towards its women. The question that comes to mind is: How can a country which has been a beacon of liberty for men and women who fled their own country in search of freedom take away the rights of its own citizens?
Even more puzzling is the question: where does this tremendous opposition to women come from? Where does the anger came from? Is it truly rooted in religion? Or is it a backlash against feminism which, in recent times, seemed to be making some gains? Is it a fear of losing power?
Male power over women has, after all, been the foundation of our societies. “Absolute patriarchy,” a woman shouted during an attack on an abortion clinic. So is it patriarchy, which has been challenged by feminists, reasserting itself? Or, is a woman opting for abortion seen to be betraying her role as the giver of life, is she considered to be stepping out of the sacred role of mother?
The mother-child bond has for centuries been a sacred bond, the idea of the nobility of motherhood being deeply embedded in the human psyche. Looked at logically, the idea veers between the sentimental and the exalted, and at times, suspiciously seems like a sop given to women to keep them tied to the home, something that women have internalised. How do you deny nobility?
In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich writes, “Some ideas are not really new but keep having to be affirmed over and over. One of these is the apparently simple idea that women are as intrinsically human as men.” And therefore women, like men, have their dreams, desires, ambitions, talents and abilities. They have, what all humans have – their unique personhood.
The sentimentalisation of motherhood
Motherhood, while it is an important part of a woman, specially until the children grow up, is not all of her. A woman who becomes a mother still remains the person she was before she became a mother; she is not necessarily superior to a woman who is not a mother. Yet the sanctity of the mother-child bond has been so treasured for centuries that it is hard to look at it dispassionately.
Motherhood, as every thinking woman knows, is not a single uncomplicated strand of love; it is hugely complicated. There’s love and a fierce protectiveness, there’s caring and the feeling of being trapped, there’s the wanting to get away at times and yet the sense of something pulling at you when you move away.
I remember the first day I left my son in school. The teacher brusquely snatched his hand out of mine, telling me to go away and return in an hour. I went, but was inexorably driven back. And I saw him standing against the wall, a picture of such misery that a loud sob erupted from my throat. I remember it clearly still.
“I never wrote this book to lend itself to the sentimentalisation of women’s nurturant and spiritual qualities,” Adrienne Rich says. Sentimentalising is what has happened to motherhood when, actually, it is only part of nature’s cunning plan for the survival of the helpless human infant.
In spite of motherhood, abortion has always been with us. It is an expression of desperation, of despair. It often seems to be the only way out for unmarried girls who get pregnant and are abandoned by their lovers. Kunti in the Mahabharata and George Eliot’s Hetty Sorrel – girls separated by time, space and cultures, but both equally ignorant and innocent – are so frightened by what has happened to them that they try desperately to get rid of their babies.
Unmarried girls are not the only ones who opt for abortion. For many married women, for most of them, in fact, pregnancy was almost a permanent factor of their lives. Women began the process of pregnancy and childbirth with marriage, which then went on year after year. The only contraception was breast-feeding, the only end to child-bearing menopause or death.
Many women looked like old women at forty. The number of women who died in childbirth could be seen in the number of wives a man had. In my mother’s natal family, most of the children of her generation were motherless and were looked after by women who survived only because they were child widows. My mother grieved to the end of her life that she lost her mother when she was only four or five.
The coming of the pill
My generation was much more fortunate; we got the benefit of an oral contraceptive, safer and more effective than any contraceptive tried before. I was one of the earliest beneficiaries of the pill, being inducted into a study on its merits and problems, a study that was being carried out by a team of doctors in the hospital in which my husband was working. The huge relief of not having to watch the calendar with anxiety and fear made all its problems minor.
The efficacy of the pill meant that women, couples, could now plan a family, they could decide how many children to have, decide on the spacing between them. Humans have never been able to do this; for the first time in human history such a thing became possible.
An invisible revolution took place with the coming of the pill. Since a woman could stop child-bearing after two or three children, she would be able to go out of the home and resume the career she had earlier, or start on something new.
Tillie Olsen in her Silences gives a long list of childless women writers.I t was almost impossible to combine work which required total commitment but was never absolutely necessary (and brought in no money, either) with looking after the home and children. In Literary Women, Ellen Moers quotes a letter of Harriet Beecher Stowe, (writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) who, after listing all her chores, writes of how “only deadly determination enables me to write; it is a rowing against wind and tide.”
Sylvia Plath’s words about waking up at four in the morning to write (she was a single parent with two young children) “that still blue almost eternal hour before the baby’s cry before the glassy music of the milkman settling his bottles” has been quoted innumerable times.
I remember my own struggle to find time to write. I started writing after my younger son started school. I tried to steal whatever time I could to write, but it was fair neither to my children nor to my writing; I knew my children had priority.
When both were in school all day, I wrote in all the time I could get after finishing my chores, scrupulously putting away my pen and papers the moment they came home. My writing hours grew with my children and by the time they were in high school, I could finally write a novel.
What would I have done if I had had half-a-dozen children? This is not my story alone, this is the story of many women, stories of much greater hardships. Stories that changed after the pill came. It’s only in hindsight that I can see what happened to the girls and women in my school and college. Many became doctors, some ended up as school / college / university teachers, one or two became lawyers, there was one journalist, an occasional government and bank employee.
One of my school friends who was brilliant at mathematics became the head of a management institute, later a director of a bank. None of this would have been possible without the pill. And the world, I am convinced, gained from the participation of women in its affairs, though for long, maybe even now, they were confined to repetitive jobs.
The choice of life
It surprises me that the misfortune of losing half of the talent pool of the world because women were tied down to child bearing and rearing for most of their lives was never taken note of. Even more ignored has been the frustration and anger in women who had talent, perhaps genius, but had to stifle it and deal with the unending chores, the drudgery of a home and family. To see what happens to a country which has a blanket ban on women doing any work outside the home one has only to look at Afghanistan.
The point is that contraception or abortion is not just about a woman’s right to her body; it is about her life. It is her right to decide what she wants to make of her life. To decide how many children she wants. Whether, after the children are no longer so dependent on her, she wants to make something more of her life.
Early pioneers, like Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, concentrated on contraception. Margaret Sanger was horrified when she heard a doctor tell a man to go and sleep on the roof if he wanted to avoid his wife getting pregnant. Was there really no solution except abstention from sex? There were other methods, but they were clumsy, and not safe and sure either. (Which is why abortion became important.) And so the birth control zealots went on searching for something suitable, easy to use and effective.
We in India had our own pioneer, Raghunath Karve (forgotten and unknown now), who, in the early years of the last century, along with his wife, made a crusade of improving women’s lives. Together they tried to educate women about birth control. Astonishingly, for a man of those times, he tried to tell women that they had the right to enjoy sex, a belief which Margaret Sanger shared.
But contraception, birth control and abortion are so enmeshed with the subject of sex that these were not only taboo subjects, they were obscene. And therefore criminal. Birth control clinics were closed down, people working there were arrested. Raghunath Karve suffered greatly, not only losing his job (he was a professor of mathematics) and suffering poverty, but also social vilification and ostracism. But when have pioneers ever had it good?
Women’s welfare in India
An interesting coincidence is that exactly fifty years after Raghunath Karve opened his family planning clinic in Bombay in 1921, an independent India passed an act legalising abortion in 1971 (two years before Roe vs Wade legalised it in the USA). The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act) is a surprisingly liberal act, giving importance to the physical and mental health of the mother as well.
Surprising, because no country has shown any enthusiasm in legislating for women’s welfare. Our own track record is dismal. The much debated Bill to give women thirty-three and one thirds of the seats in Parliament and all State legislatures – what happened to it? Where is it now? And the Bill to codify Hindu personal law, specially benefitting women, which was mooted after Independence was finally withdrawn because “there was too much opposition to it’’. The Law Minister Dr Ambedkar, resigned on this issue.
Go further back to 1891 and there is the Age of Consent Act, a title replete with irony and pathos, because it dealt with the consent of little girls to their husbands having sex with them. In this time of child marriage, girls were married to much older men. A Parsi reformer, Behramji Malabari, spared no efforts to change the Act and raise the age of consent of a girl to above ten, which it was at the time.
Two cases, one of a woman married as a child who refused to cohabit with her husband when she was of age, and the other, a girl of eleven forced into sex by her husband leading to her death, gave greater impetus to the movement to raise the age of consent. The British suggested the age of twelve, Indian reformers like Justice Ranade, Agarkar, Gokhale and many others wanted it to be fourteen. But Tilak wanted no change. The government, he said, should have nothing to do with our social customs and ways of living. The fate of little girls forced out of their childhood was not important.
The reversing of Roe vs Wade this year is not the end of the story. It is not a permanent setback. In India, even as I write this, the Supreme Court of India has ruled that unmarried women are also entitled to the benefits conferred by the MTP Act, even if they are not specifically mentioned in the Act.
Relying on Parliamentary intent and on the many categories of women who have been mentioned as beneficiaries of the Act, the judges have held that unmarried women cannot be left out of the ambit of this law. “A woman’s right to reproductive choice is an inseparable part of her personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution,” they have said. Wise words, wise judges.
Yet, it cannot be denied that this is most certainly not a good time for women, with the extreme right becoming more influential and religious fundamentalism growing across the world. Religion is sadly and ironically never good for women, because all religions are rooted in patriarchy.
It is never good for a country, either, because of its polarising capacity. Women free to exercise their rights are the mark of a civilised country, a democratic country. One piece of good news I hold on to is that Adrienne Rich, writing in the tenth-year-edition of her book Of Woman Born in 1986, prophesied that Roe vs Wade would be overturned soon, within a decade, or even less. But it stayed on for 36 years after that.
One can perhaps hope that feminism has taken root and has won for itself the right to be considered a serious ideology. And so it is possible, no, certain, that the struggle will go on. Let me quote former US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a hero of our times: “We have the oldest Constitution in the world and it starts with three words: We the People.”
Feminism, or women’s struggle, has been to ensure that “we” includes women.