April 20, 2001


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Bharat Jhunjhunwala

Abortion and choice

The 2001 census has once again pointed out that the number of women in India is less than that in most other countries of the world.

This has brought forth demands for strict enforcement of legislation for the prevention of sex-selective abortions. There is a contradiction though. We continue to promote abortions to expand the choice of the parents.

Sex-selective abortions lead to the same result. As regards gender equality, we have to choose between the rights of the mother and the unborn female child. We cannot empower the female child by disempowering the female parent. There is a need to review the policy on abortion in toto.

The confusion arises because we fail to distinguish between three equally valid principles which are mutually contradictory.

The first principle is that of expansion of choice. This leads to the right of the parents to abort the child. Their choice is further expanded if they can select the sex of their child. Sex-selective abortions are, therefore, acceptable according to this principle.

The second principle is that of gender equality. Here abortions in general are acceptable but sex- selective abortions are not. This principle is in direct conflict with the principle of expansion of choice. We would have to restrict the choice of the parents to establish gender equality.

The third principle is that of right to life. Here any abortion is not acceptable. The right to life of the foetus is said to take precedence over the parent's expansion of choice.

The difficulty is that these three principles -- while they are valid in themselves -- are not in harmony with each other. The final result depends on which of the three is considered to be primary.

This problem can only be settled if we can come up with a greater principle which subsumes the three. Such a principle suggested in our tradition is that of 'Evolution of Consciousness.'

We seek expansion of choice because it helps in the evolution of our consciousness. A person who has a choice of place of residence can live on the seaside if he finds peace there. The peace helps him unfold his higher faculties.

On the other hand, unlimited expansion of choice is not desirable. If we are handed a book-like menu in a restaurant that choice is rejected. Expansion of choice is desirable only as long as it helps in the evolution of a person.

We seek gender equality for the same purpose. Women should not be denied the chance to fly airplanes if they so desire. The development of their personality should not be restricted due to social codes. But we do not desire that woman pull cycle rickshaws because that does not lead to their evolution. Gender equality is desirable only so far as it helps in the evolution of the female person.

Right to life too is sought so that no person is deprived of his chance to evolve. But we do give capital punishment to a murderer. His right to evolve is restricted because the other's right to evolve is transgressed.

The greater principle of evolution of consciousness could give us a way out of the three lesser principles in conflict.

The question of abortion should therefore be adjudged on the touchstone of evolution of consciousness rather than any one of the three principles.

A crucial consideration here is when does the foetus become 'human'. Modern sciences show us that 'ego' develops in the foetus after the fourth month. This is endorsed by the Indian view that jivatma enters the foetus after the fourth month.

Till then the foetus represents potential human life but is not quite 'human' itself. Once ego is developed the unborn child is to be treated as a human being. The rights of the foetus will stand on a lower footing till that time.

There can be different views of when exactly this transition takes place but the existence of such a point of transition is not disputed.

The evolution of consciousness best takes place if, instead of resorting to an abortion, the couple exercises self-restraint in not producing a child. That helps in their own evolution as well. It also does not obstruct the evolution of the potential human life by creating an unnecessary start and stop.

But if a couple has conceived and yet has a strong desire not to have a child then there is a tradeoff involved. An abortion (before development of the ego) destroys the foetus but helps in the evolution of the parents.

The evolution of the parents will clearly take precedence over that of the foetus. This would lead to the right of the parents to abort if they have a strong aversion to the child. Thus we have medicines prescribed in Ayurveda for securing abortion.

The same argument applies to sex-selective abortions. If a couple has an irresistible desire to have a child of a particular sex and is not able to overcome that desire, then it would be justified for them to have the foetus aborted. It is inconsistent to advocate abortion generally while criticizing sex-selective abortion.

The result is that all abortion should be discouraged. But in situations where evolution of the parents is otherwise not possible, the rights of the foetus may be sacrificed. This applies both to abortion in general as well as to sex-selective ones.

This formula would be consistent with the principle of expansion of choice as all abortions expand the choice of the parents. It would also be consistent with the principle of right to life.

The parents' right to life takes precedence over the foetus' right to life. If the distinction between the right of the foetus and the adult is not made then all abortion would stand rejected.

The question remains of gender equality. Should sex-selective abortions be banned because they discriminate against a particular sex? There is a conflict between the right of the female parent and that of the female foetus. It is not then a question of discrimination against the female. It is a question of precedence between the female parent and female foetus. Here the rights of the parent would take precedence over the rights of the foetus.

There is a contradiction in our law which permits abortion in general while prohibiting sex- selective ones. If expansion of choice is the touchstone then both have to be accepted. If right to life is the touchstone then both have to be rejected. If gender equality is the touchstone then the rights of the female parent take precedence over the right of the female foetus.

We should get out of this contradiction. Either we should restrict all abortions except in case of danger to the mother's life. Once we accept abortion then we have little basis to deny sex- selective abortions.

Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala, a former professor at IIM Bangalore, is a freelance economist and the author of Welfare State and Globalisation.

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