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Roe vs Wade: What’s at stake for women in the US – and India

www.scroll.in | July 12, 2022
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Both countries have long attempted to instill a notion of motherhood that is compliant to the demands of a patriarchal system dominated by men.

Following the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court in the United States to allow states to ban or drastically reduce access to abortion by overturning the 1973 Roe and Planned Parenthood vs Casey, many Indian commentators on social media gloated that their country’s laws on terminating pregnancy are superior.

While women’s bodies and their purportedly vulnerable status are often manipulated to achieve nationalist agendas in India and elsewhere, this US ruling is yet another attempt at paternalistic control and symbolic violence. This is not American exceptionalism.

Both the US and India have long attempted to instill in their people a notion of ideal motherhood – a form of motherhood that is compliant to the demands of a patriarchal system dominated by men.

American democracy

In the US, many have expressed concern about how this surgical attack on reproductive freedoms is emblematic of a systematic hollowing out of American democracy (see here and here). For almost five decades, Roe vs Wade reaffirmed the fundamental right to abortion. With this ruling, as many as 20 states dominated by Republicans are likely to enact absolute bans on abortion within months.

A sudden rise in the demand for the procedure as well as of abortion pills and an imminent threat of new biolegal battles loom large in post-Roe America.

Protestors have highlighted how this ruling will disproportionately affect racially marginalised women (Blacks and Hispanics) from lower-income communities. Women in states that ban abortion will have to travel long distances to seek treatment. One study notes, for instance, that a woman in Cameron county at the southern tip of Texas, would now need to travel to a clinic more than 1,094 km away in New Mexico.

This ruling has precipitated other concerns related to the questions of the body and identity politics including contraception access, LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality. Potential US Supreme Court ruling on these issues could dramatically change the anatomy of justice in the world’s largest democracy.

The logic for this historic ruling has been premised on the complicated debate at the nexus of science, technology and women’s autonomy. At the core however, the question remains, what constitutes a human being?

A view that has gained public and legal support is that fetuses should be considered as “potential life” and hence worthy of moral and legal protection. In fact, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had previously compared abortion to a “tool of modern-day eugenics”.

These partisan political debates around a woman’s body notwithstanding, sociologists have long pointed out that in essence, it is really about constructing and preserving an idea of motherhood that is subservient to a view of the world projected by powerful men.

In the United States, Yale University sociologist Philip Gorski writes how a version of American history based on “white Christian nationalism” has gained ground and national validation in recent times. This vision of history projects the idea of “republican motherhood” that demanded that ideal mothers (white Christain, obviously) raise sons who could lead the nation. This notion did not apply to women of colour, whose sons were not seen as future American leaders.

Taking a constitutional right away from American women (and putting women of colour at a higher risk of losing out) is a way of strengthening the link between the ideal nation and the power of family structures that rewards women – especially mothers – for fulfilling socially desirable roles.

Abortion in India

In India, some people have noted triumphantly that the country legalised abortion in 1971 through the historic Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, two years before Roe vs Wade. However, what many fail to notice is that unsafe abortion remains the third leading cause of maternal mortality in India.

A recent Guttmacher Institute report notes that almost eight women die from causes related to unsafe abortion each day in India.

While institutional and infrastructural barriers such as shortages of equipment and supplies and lack of certified staff are often cited as barriers to access safe abortion, social-moral factors are crucial in understanding why abortion remains unsafe and coercive for women in India.

Much of this could be attributed to women’s early childhood socialisation. For example, girls are expected to be caregivers of younger siblings or contributors to household chores more than boys of the same age.

More insidious is the cultural context of son-preference, a unique outcome of patriarchal demographics. Simply put, some women carrying female fetuses are willing to risk criminal liability to have dangerous abortions.

Social demographers, including Amartya Sen, have noted a systematic masculinisation of Asian societies (evident from increasing sex-ratio imbalances in India) with patriarchal kinship systems that value sons over daughters throughout the life course.

Given this context of a pervasive female neglect combined with legal frameworks that prevent sex-determination of the fetus (the Preconception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques of 2003), women become victims of gender wrongs.

For instance, India’s family planning policies with its provision of incentives and disincentives (disallowing those with more than two children from being nominated for panchayat or local body elections) has served as a convenient smokescreen for perpetuating son-preference resulting in high rates of unsafe abortions.

Although estimates are unclear, India is believed to have one of the highest rates of sex-selective abortions offered through the informal-sector such as pharmacists supplying abortion pills and unregistered private providers who perform abortions in nonfacility settings.

Research has shown that wealth and economic development – factors that are often presumed to promote gender equality – do not necessarily reduce sex-selective abortion.

For instance, using data from India’s National Family Health Surveys, an International Centre for Research of Women study showed that women in wealthier households merely change the way they implement son preference, but not the preference itself.

Sociocultural influences on son-preference persists even when women find themselves in environments where reproductive autonomy is valued and protected. In a 2009 study based on South Asian immigrant families in the United States, 89% of women carrying female fetuses in their current pregnancy had pursued an abortion following family violence and abuse.

Dangerous signal

The situation in India, as also the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the United States, are clear signs that women’s sexual and reproductive choices continue to remain circumscribed within the larger ideological apparatus of patriarchal institutions.

In the US, taking away women’s rights on their own bodies is not about the “sanctity of life”, as supporters of the decision claim, but of patriarchal control and institutional misogyny.

As feminist Laurie Penny noted, “We live in a society that is comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence but determined not to let women get away with consensual sex.”

As reproductive health advocates have warned us, the repercussions of this ruling will not be limited to the United States. It sends a dangerous signal that abortion rights are not human rights, a sentiment that can have alarming health consequences in a country such as India with pervasive female neglect.

The stakes are too high. It is time for public health advocates, policy makers and the feminist movement to regroup and recalibrate. Or, we stand the risk of witnessing a painful miscarriage of justice for battles that have been won half a century ago.

-Prof. Tannistha Samanta, Associate Professor – Sociology.