The contours of gender-related reform campaigns also contributed to the lukewarm nature of anti-abortion efforts. From the early nineteenth century, a series of social movements about women emerged across colonial South Asia. One such movement was the campaign to permit and destigmatise the remarriage of Hindu widows. Traditionally, Hindu women in many upper-caste communities did not remarry after the death of their husbands. They lived under ritually and materially restricted conditions in the homes of their dead husbands’ families. The Hindu remarriage movement focused on the plight of young widows, including virgin widows whose husbands had died before adolescent cohabitation began. Unable to remarry, some widows of childbearing age had extramarital relationships and became pregnant. They turned to abortion to avoid social and economic ruin. Financial support from their dead husbands’ families was contingent upon the widows’ continuing celibacy, although occasionally the courts tried to soften this position.

As early as the 1830s, colonial administrators linked abortion to the prohibition on Hindu widow remarriage. Commenting on the draft text of IPC s. 312 (on abortion), one member of the Indian Law Commission expressed scepticism about trying to crack down on abortion while young widows were prohibited from remarrying: “I much doubt the policy of providing heavy penalties for the repression of the offence of causing miscarriage by the woman herself whilst the barbarous institutions of the country create the offence.”

The widow-remarriage movement portrayed widows as hapless victims of inhumane norms. One 1856 petition signed by “312 native subjects of India” argued that the Shasters in fact did permit Hindu women to remarry in five situations: if their husbands died, were long absent, or became ascetic, impotent, or apostates. Because these texts had been ignored in favour of a blanket ban on widow remarriage, the petitioners argued that abortion had become a common practice among young Hindu widows.

Condemning women

The Hindu remarriage campaign culminated in the passage of the (Hindu) Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, which affirmed the validity of widows’ remarriage contracts under Indian law. A continuing campaign to change social attitudes followed, but the stigma remained. The Hindu widow remained the quintessential figure associated with criminal abortion from the1860ss until the end of British rule in 1947. An 1885 editorial in the Times of India insisted that infanticide and abortion were “the inevitable result of a custom that condemns twenty-one million women to perpetual widowhood”. According to one letter to the editor in the same year, widow remarriage was still deemed a “more heinous crime” worthy of exclusion “from caste and society” than abortion, child desertion, or a criminal conviction. Hehir and Gribble made the following observations in 1892:

“In this country it is, no doubt, true that there are a very large number of criminal or violent abortions, and that an unfortunate widow who has yielded to temptation has every reason, through fear of exposure, loss of caste, etc., to resort to such means in order to save her reputation. At the same time, it must be remembered that everything and everybody are against her. There are probably suspicions of her immorality; and in a small village community, where nearly everything that goes on is known, people are on the look-out, and even if she should miscarry naturally, she is sure to be suspected of having used criminal means to produce abortion.”

Three decades later, Waddell noted that the majority of known abortion cases in 1920s India still involved Hindu widows. As long as the taboo on remarriage continued, so would the association of widows and abortion.

Looking the other way

Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, coroners in Bombay Presidency carried out inquests on young Hindu widows who had died following attempted abortions. The coroner led the process whereby a coroner’s jury decided whether an unusual death was a suicide, homicide, or accident – or had occurred ‘suddenly by means unknown’. He delegated the post-mortem examination to the coroner’s surgeon. If the coroner’s jury found that the death was a murder, a criminal trial would follow the inquest (provided there was a suspect). This trial would establish whether a particular person had committed the murder. If the coroner’s jurors found that the death was a suicide, accident, or the result of “means unknown”, the case ended there.

In some inquests, Hindu widows died by poisoning themselves after attempting to abort “by mouth”. One young widow in Ahmedabad died after taking drugs given to her by her paramour in 1849. More, though, involved later-term abortion attempts by ‘local’ means. An 1872 inquest considered the death of Abbai, a 30-year-old widow who lived with her sister and stonemason brother-in-law. The coroner’s surgeon, Sidney Smith, concluded from the post-mortem that she had died of peritonitis followed perforation of the intestines during an abortion. Five years later, a 25-year-old widow named Heerabai was also found to have died of peritonitis following an abortion. She had been a widow since the age of 11.

Inquest cases were by definition fatal ones. For women who survived, the colonial state would only have added to these women’s suffering by prosecuting them for abortion. Such action would also undermine the portrayal of Hindu widows as victims – a characterisation essential for the remarriage movement. In other words, a light touch on abortion when the women were still alive was the compromise needed to prioritise another social-reform campaign.

Excerpted with permission from “Abortion in South Asia, 1860-1947: A medico-legal history,” Modern Asian Studies (2020) by Mitra Sharafi.