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Indian-American’s sentencing sparks Abortion Law debate

April,26,2015: Purvi Patel of Indiana was convicted of foeticide. Her case only reveals that as long as patriarchal structures continue to rule reproduction, a woman’s womb can never be her own.

Purvi Patel is taken into custody after being sentenced to 20 years in prison
Purvi Patel is taken into custody after being sentenced to 20 years in prison

The strange and distressing case of Purvi Patel — the 33-year-old Asian-American woman who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison on two counts of foeticide and child neglect — is a chilling reminder of how societies all over the world have abrogated women’s reproductive rights.

Patel’s problems are entrenched in the patriarchal roots of two different cultures that pushed her into a corner. She lived with her orthodox Gujarati parents in Indiana, the U.S. She became pregnant after a socially unacceptable affair with her co-worker. Around 20 weeks or so into her pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage at home and lost her foetus. She wrapped the foetus in a plastic bag and threw it into a dumpster before rushing into a hospital, covered in her own blood and with the umbilical cord still dangling.

Patel was treated in the emergency room, but was later charged with killing her own child by “self-abortion” and also of “child neglect” because she did not care for the “child” in her womb. Her cell phone conversations with her friends on the availability of abortion drugs were used against her. Even though no such toxins were found in any of her blood samples or that of the foetus, she was accused of self-inducing abortion. And so, a foeticide law — which was supposed to actually protect pregnant women from abusive partners and other similar attackers — was used to imprison her.

A famous Tamil author, once narrated a similar story about a young widow who lived with her traditional Brahmin joint family and had a miscarriage. In that case too, the woman was afraid of the stigma attached to the pregnancy of a single woman and a widow. Did she try to abort the foetus or did she miscarry? No one ever knew. What my friend could not forget, however, was the sight of the blood flowing through the gutter outside the bathroom where the young woman lay.

All that my friend could think of then was that the woman who lay dying needed care, not stigmatisation. Fortunately, her family rallied around and took care of her and she was neither publicly shamed nor criminalised.

A woman’s womb is the most intimate part of her body; logically it should also be the one part over which she has total control. Yet every stakeholder in every society wants to have a say on how her reproductive rights should be regulated.

In Purvi Patel’s case, it was a multiple whammy. She came from a culture where the moral code stigmatises an unwed mother and does not recognise her sexual needs. She also lived in a society where another moral code criminalises a woman who discards an unwanted foetus. Only two women in the U.S. have so far been arrested under the foeticide law. One was of Indian origin and the other of Chinese origin.

Did the pro-life lobby, which has strong roots in the Catholic Church, influence these decisions? Perhaps the family planning policies in India and China combined with news reports of forced sterilisations and sex-selective abortions prejudiced the jury, which had a totally different cultural perspective.

In India, over the years, in the course of investigating my articles, I have interviewed many women on the subject of fertility and reproductive choices. They came from all walks of life, belonged to different religions, different communities and had different stories to tell. I have spoken to women who have had multiple abortions, women who have remained childless, women who have undergone fertility treatment, women who have carried babies in their wombs for other women, women who have borne more than a dozen children and even women who have killed their own infants because they were girls. I have also spoken to doctors, midwives and nurses who have delivered babies, conducted abortions and, in some cases, helped dispose of unwanted babies after they were born.

Not many of these women actually had a choice. Most actually had no say in whether or not they wanted to have babies. None decided, on their own, to undergo the trauma of a sex-selective abortion. Many women were forced to go in for tubectomies because their men were worried vasectomies would weaken them. Most women said their husbands and families had full control over their wombs. There were economic issues — girls take away dowries, boys bring them in — and social ones — a woman’s status in the family depends on her fertility and, more importantly, her ability to produce sons. Women who are childless or have only daughters can be beaten, ostracised and even thrown out of the marital home.

In the 1970s, forced vasectomy was an issue. Now, women are dying because of sterilisations done under horrifying conditions and more frighteningly because of botched-up illegal abortions. Many don’t even know that legal abortion is available to those who really need it because the whole issue has been complicated with the issue of sex-selective abortion, which is illegal.

Now there are new social and economic issues at play. Career women are forced to take decisions on when and whether to have children depending on their jobs. This never applies to men. Young women go in for abortions because of career demands dictated by the patriarchal system in the office. The latest socio-economic pressure is the offer by some companies to pay for young career women to have their eggs harvested and stored so they can use them to have babies later on when their professional lives have stabilised.

As long as patriarchal structures continue to dictate the rules of reproduction, a woman’s womb can never be her own.Hindu

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