In March 2015, Purvi Patel, a young unmarried woman of Indian origin in the United States, was found guilty by an Indiana court of both causing injury to her foetus, and infanticide, which meant killing her new born baby and sentenced to 20 years in in prison. The two charges under which Patel was convicted were obviously contradictory. Her sentencing depended entirely on the fact that “personhood” is said to have occurred at the moment of conception.
Patel’s sentence was later set aside but, as a professor of women’s studies argues in this article published in Scroll.in in April 2015, the Indiana prosecutors may have been emboldened in charging Patel with foeticide because of how China and India serve as poster children in global evangelical crusades against abortion.
The politics of abortion once again took centre stage in the vitriolic US election campaigns pitting Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. Trump, now president-elect, promised to punish abortion seekers, while Clinton came out in favour of reproductive rights, which means the right to abortion. At the same time, state after state in the US has passed laws to protect “foetal rights”, the kind of laws that resulted in Patel’s conviction.
The so-called pro-life movement that stands against abortion comprises largely of Christian fundamentalists. The movement has been active and growing since 1973 when the US Supreme Court in the famous Roe vs Wade judgment made abortion legal for women in the US, under the right to privacy. The pro-life label is fuzzy, because this group is pro-life only for foetuses and not for the betterment of the lives of the poor, marginalised, immigrants or sexual minorities.
In 1976, the pro-life lobby with corporate aid managed to get the US Congress to pass the Hyde Amendment that excludes abortion from the healthcare services the federal government through Medicaid to poor people. This obviously affected poor women and women of colour the most.
The Hyde Amendment was named after one of the most visceral anti-abortion activists, a twelve-time Republican house representative from Illinois. A Roman Catholic who preached family values, Henry Hyde was also on the committee recommending impeachment of President Clinton for l’affaire Monica Lewinsky, till it was revealed that he himself had been involved in an extra-marital affair for ten years.
In India, of course Hyde is known more for his efforts to stop India from making nuclear purchases, not for what he meant for the curtailment of women’s reproductive rights. Incidentally, the US spent more money on the inquiry in to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair than that of the completely illegitimate entry of US into Iraq.
Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, a variant of the Hyde Amendment was applied to US funding for reproductive health programmes globally and came to be known as the Global Gag Rule. This marriage of neo-liberals with Christian fundamentalism, that had brought Reagan to power, had indeed a strangely salutary effect on global population discourse. At the 1984 conference on population and development in Mexico, the US government shed its Cold War fixation with population control in Third World countries and argued instead that population was a neutral phenomenon.
As a result it cut funding to all population control programmes in countries, which included abortion. A large number of Indian NGOs thus suffered fund cuts. What the Reagan administration also managed to do was to introduce the fuzzy idea of foetal rights and “foeticide” in global discourse.
The Global Gag Rule, which also affected US contributions to the United Nations Population Fund or UNFPA, was repealed by President Clinton. The rule was reintroduced by President George W Bush and then repealed again by President Barack Obama.
The India contradiction
Meanwhile in India, there was not a peep of protest when the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed in 1971 for population control reasons. In a society considered to be essentially religious it is astonishing that nobody tried to understand why. In the Cold War rush to control population, no one had time to rethink Orientalism, the idea among many Western scholars, and imitative Indian ones, that the East is essentially religious and irrational, while the West is modern and rational.
Now, however, we are in a new phase of globalisation, as the power of labour movements and women’s movement has declined, along with the decline of states’ commitment to welfare regimes.
In the neo-liberal environment, access to contraception in the US has declined. At the same time, in India, the idea of “reproductive choice” is being celebrated by NGOs with links to new international NGOs, in particular the international Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Population Council and the Population Foundation of India.
The idea of reproductive choice had come in for severe criticism in the US by women of colour who called instead for “reproductive justice”. They argued that the idea of choice was meaningless to women who had no choices in life; indeed that white women had won reproductive rights on the basis of reproductive wrongs for women of colour. They pointed out that black women had been subjected to reproductive slavery, to coerced sterilisation, and that their bodies had been used for clinical tests, the benefits of which went disproportionately to white women.
Pushing population control
In India too, poor women suffer reproductive wrongs. They have been dying in sterilisation operations, their bodies are sites for clinical trials, if not to be hired out for commercial surrogacy or sex work. Yet it was under the rubric of reproductive rights that several NGOs have urged the government, which accepted with undue alacrity, to introduce injectable contraceptives into the family planning programme. This was immediately after the shameful death of 13 women in a sterilisation camp in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, in November 2014. These groups argued that there is a need to widen what they call the basket of choices. This, in a situation where public health facilities have collapsed, where routine maternal and child health services are suffering, when there are huge shortfalls in human resources in health. India, of course, has one of the lowest public health expenditures in the world.
We know from the past that when technologies like intra-uterine devices were introduced in India, they caused enormous damage because the country did not have adequate health infrastructure to support the needs of women trying these out. Now we are rushing in with something more complicated, requiring medical supervision, which cannot be provided.
Thus is reproductive injustice being inflicted on poor women in India. They have no rights to work, to food, to education and healthcare, but must have injectable contraceptives as “reproductive choice”. The cascade of bad decisions endangering health and personal liberty in the US and the rest of the globalised world is, in the end, extracting the heaviest price on the poor women in India because of our elite’s obsession with population control.
The author is Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.