Visiting her Alma Mater after 20 years was a rejuvenating experience for Sarita (32) one of my former students who recently turned up along with her two daughters. In between her reminiscing and rhapsodizing over her happy school days of excursions and competitions I noticed her feeble frame pregnant with another child. While inquiring about her health-conditions her smile turned into frown. “Despite the two miscarriages I’ve had in the past three years, my in-laws insist that I keep trying until I give them a grandson. My businessman-husband finds no time to care for my health. Neither have I any say on my pregnancy,” she said.
Those like Sarita can now take heart in a new judgment from the Supreme Court . The apex court of India finally has come to terms with a woman’s ownership on her own body and not letting her in-laws and social norms define her life. This in a country where as per the latest findings of the World Health Organization five women die every hour due to childbirth- related complications and nearly 45,000 mothers annually die which accounts for 17 per cent of the global maternal mortality.
The Supreme Court judge A K Sikri couldn’t have endeared himself to Indian women in better words than asserting that it is the woman’s “choice” to either have a baby, or abort or prevent pregnancy. It is her right. While speaking recently at a symposium- Reproductive Rights In Indian Courts: Celebrating Progress, Identifying Challenges And Discussing The Way Forward– organized by the Jindal Global University, justice Sikri had much to say on women’s reproductive autonomy: “When we talk of reproductive rights in this country, then there is hardly any choice so far as the woman is concerned. I can’t help but wonder how we as humans have failed humanity. I am perplexed as to how in the 21st century, with all the technological advances, becoming frequent guests in the (outer) space and creating artificial intelligence, we are still not able to bring our women to enjoy the fruits of humanity. That is the harsh reality. Reproductive right, which of course is a human right, is based on the human dignity. When we talk of reproductive rights, it is mixed with another right of women that is the sexual right. When we talk of reproductive rights in India, there again the choice is of the husband in the family or what the elders say…when there should be a child, whether that child should be male or female etc. A woman’s choice to reproduce, abort or prevent pregnancy, deals with her body. It is she, who, by the virtue of her anatomy, undergoes the process eventually. It is her body. It’s her right; the choice has to be hers.”
Justifying the judicial over-reach on issues relating to human rights, Justice Sikri had this to say: “Ultimately it is the judiciary which is the interpreter of the law, having the final say in what the law is.” Citing the recent Bollywood movie ‘Pink’, Justice Sikri asserted that a woman must be free to make her own decision regarding her sexual and reproductive rights. “A woman is not free until she owns her body.”
Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence as expressed in human rights documents. In the exercise of this right, they should take into account the needs of their living and future children and their responsibilities towards the community.
In the deep rooted patriarchal structure of India, women’s battle for reproductive-autonomy has been long and losing. Feminist movements down the years have been taking up cudgels defending a woman’s right over her body hence her freedom of choice in matters of her maternity. Stereotypical depictions of women as homemakers and baby-producing machines have contributed to coercive pregnancies imposed upon them sans their consent and against their ill-health. Such forced pregnancies have taken a huge toll on maternal mortality in India. Forcing a woman to reproduce much against her wish and if the child within the womb is found a girl then again she is forced to undergo female foeticide.
While the words of Justice Sikri adds to women power in India and his speech indeed is a music to the ear of those women who have no say on their own bodies, reproductive freedom of both male and female partners cannot be wielded without responsibility and outside ethical parameters. Reproductive freedom entails a whole range of issues positive and negative . The sacredness of human life as God’s supreme gift ought to be respected in reproductive freedom. Writer Anne Lamott has aptly said, “As a Christian and a feminist, the most important message I can carry and fight for is the sacredness of each human life and reproductive rights for all women are a crucial part of that. It is a moral necessity that we not be forced to bring children into the world for whom we cannot be responsible and adoring and present. We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.”#(Published on 13th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 11)