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What About the Other Savitas?
Foetus and Feminism
by FARZANA VERSEY

Words like “pro-choice” did not even occur to her as they forced an iron rod into her vagina and, together with the blood, remnants of an unborn human being seeped out. She wept a little for the lost child and much more for the scalded part that was essential to her job. Shanno was a sex worker. The brothel owner could not afford her ‘wares’ to be mothers. Shanno had opted for survival on sleaze street. Brothels are secular, so she followed all faiths. No one would justify or hold back her abortion on the basis of religion.

Savita Halappanavar’s death due to negligence at the University Hospital Galway in Ireland has become a global issue largely due to that. A 17-week-old foetus is considered risky for termination of pregnancy. Unfortunately, she was miscarrying and in the state of unbearable pain asked the doctors to abort the baby. The reply they gave her has become a whip-mantra: “This is a Catholic country.”

Is it news that the Catholic Church is against abortion? Savita’s family is justifiably incensed; the denial of her right to terminate the pregnancy is a crime for which they ought to get justice. However, would there be such international outrage had the doctors cited medical reasons for their refusal to abort? Indian politicians who pay scant respect for women’s health and welfare have urged the external affairs minister to intervene and order an enquiry into this case. A report states that 12 women die every day in India due to unsafe termination of pregnancy.

Jodie Jacobson wrote in RH Reality Check: “Someone’s daughter, wife, friend, perhaps sister is now dead. Why? Because a non-viable fetus was more important than her life. Because she was left to suffer for days on end in service of an ideological stance and religion she did not share. Because a wanted pregnancy went horribly wrong, and, because as must now be clear, there are people who don’t care about the lives of women.”

If it is an ideological stance, would the lawmakers in Ireland even consider this example based on a religion Savita “did not share”? Some foreign newspapers have carried stories with large pictures of Savita and her family at her wedding, including a dance video of a private function. The motive seems to be to pit one culture against another, or at least to highlight that an ‘outsider’ had to suffer because of these laws. Last month, the first private abortion clinic opened in Belfast amidst protests. Why did it take this long for such a medical service to be available when it is public knowledge that women travel to England for abortion? Do activists believe one case will lead to a re-examination of the country’s archaic laws?

Every religion talks about the value of life. That they do not value the quality of life, are misogynistic, and follow a wholly patriarchal notion should make us wary about using their programmed responses to falsify the reasoning. In fact, most social norms too consider abortion as the last resort. How many women, even among the educated, take an individual decision to abort?

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Let us digress and expand on the idea of choice.  By applying the argument that a ‘woman’s body is her own’ – an obvious fact – the onus shifts entirely on women. Where abortion or childbirth is concerned, this amounts to being the sole caregiver or guilt-ridden slave of chauvinistic tripe. Just as the Pill did not really empower women but made her accountable for her ‘freedom’, the womb has been desexualised as a pre-birth nanny.

Contemporary feminist literature, especially about sexuality, while apparently busting myths ends up as a Hallmark card celebration of feminine body parts. Take this: “I experienced some of the ‘thoughts’ of the uterus myself”, from Naomi Wolf’s ‘Vagina: A New Biography’.  Imbuing the sexual organs with emotions demotes physicality as a natural state. The woman becomes an addendum to the part: “Your vagina makes you a goddess. Or rather, ‘The Goddess’.”

A review in The Guardian had taken on Wolf by recounting her description of “a ‘bodyworker’ who attempts, through massage, to re-engage sexually traumatised women and who, Wolf relates in the book with a straight face, once saw an image of the Virgin Mary in a vagina”.

This is a concept that the male module employs effectively to worship women as divine pleasure-givers whose own contentment is essentially to procreate. It appears that female sexuality can only be sanctified as motherhood. It is not easy to discard the psychological baggage, the subliminal conditioning of creating that which is in God’s image. When an Indian intimate cleansing product was advertised as satiating the male, some women activists had raised objections using the convenient hitch of its ‘fairness’ claims. While owning up to the right to pleasure, I had written then that they seemed to look upon it as an individual activity. This too amounts to a quasi-virginal Madonna state.

The supposedly more open western society is also not immune to this. When Demi Moore posed in the buff in an advanced stage of pregnancy for Vanity Fair, she was legitimising pop culture through maternity. Angelina Jolie goes a step further by a public forsaking of the crutch of cohabitation to become the ‘adopted’ mother.

Where choice is concerned, there can be extremes. If widows could use the frozen sperm of the spouse because the couple were seen as “together”, according to Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, 1990, then at the other end a foetus born to a brain-dead woman was kept alive because it had the right to live. Savita might well have been saved had medical assistance opted to do so.

It is not only Ireland that has to think. We forget that in many parts of the world foetuses are discarded because they are female and infants are thrown in garbage bins because they are viewed as burdens. By some weird logic, this is justified as a choice by a society that has no respect for human dignity and for women.  It is the low self-esteem choice to be chauvinistic.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/