Although India has fairly liberal laws when it comes to abortion, medical professionals are often hostile to women who approach them to get the procedure done. In cinema, too, abortion has been equated to murder far too many times. With the glorification of pregnancy and motherhood, this important reproductive right which gives women autonomy over their own bodies is demonised repeatedly.
A Malayalam short film called Aval, directed by Adarsh Kumar Aniyal (of Raven fame) and released on YouTube recently, presents the bitter truth about the issue. In the film, a young woman in an abusive marriage who did not want to keep her pregnancy, develops postpartum depression and ends up killing her child. Interestingly, the film has been produced and co-written by a medical professional, Dr Veena JS.
Speaking to TNM, Dr Veena says, “I’ve been observing the violations taking place in abortion cases and in labour rooms for many years now. I’ve seen this happening in a personal as well as professional capacity. This situation is common in most parts of the developing world, it happens even in the developed world. But we hardly see this being represented in cinema.”
Pointing out that cinema is the biggest medium that there is, Dr Veena says, “I feel like there’s no point just talking about this everywhere, it should appear in films too. I’m someone who attends film festivals quite often, perhaps that’s why I decided to make this film.”
According to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, an abortion is permitted up to 20 weeks of a pregnancy, and after that in exceptional circumstances. Sex selective abortion, however, is illegal and is covered by the Pre-natal Diagnostics Testing Act. But, Dr Veena says that on ground, it’s not so easy for a woman to get a legal abortion.
In Aval, the young woman, Reena, is shamed by a number of doctors who refuse to perform the procedure on moral grounds. Some also quote exorbitant rates. Reena is only three months pregnant and therefore well within her rights to get an abortion done.
“I actually haven’t seen a doctor who readily agrees to an abortion till date,” claims Dr Veena. “The main doctor I have shown in this film is someone I have seen in real life when I went with a friend to a medical college hospital. She’s the average gynaecologist. It’s the reality of the situation.”
Many gynaecologists in Kerala and other parts of the country, Dr Veena says, are convinced that conducting an abortion is morally wrong. The dissenting comments by other medical professionals on her Facebook page about abortion lend validity to Dr Veena’s statement.
“The minimum rate for an abortion in private hospitals is Rs 17,000. I know only one private hospital which does an abortion for Rs 7,000. The price of abortion tablets is less than Rs 1,000. Including the scan, the procedure can be done for under Rs 2,000. In Kochi, the rate is as high as Rs 38,000 and in Thiruvananthapuram, I’ve heard of cases where as much as Rs 40,000 has been charged,” she says.
Dr Veena says that since many women are unable to openly say that they’ve had an abortion, they can’t question the hospitals on the fleecing. These difficult circumstances push women to seek out quacks or try abortions at home which could prove to be risky. In India, unsafe abortions are actually the third leading cause for maternal deaths.
Citing a 2016 case where a woman from Kasaragod had to go to court to get her pregnancy terminated because the government hospital in Kasaragod repeatedly refused to perform the procedure and she ended up crossing the 20 weeks mark, Dr Veena says that this has happened to several women.
“The Heads of Departments in many hospitals refuse to perform abortions, and those below them feel pressured not to do it either. The main issue is morality. They use words like ‘killing’ for abortion. They also claim that they have to account for the abortions performed and that this may be considered female foeticide. But that’s just not true because there is a separate law to stop female foeticide,” she says.
Although Dr Veena does face backlash from the medical community for being outspoken about such issues, she feels compelled to lay out the truth.
“We see so many tragedies happening because of postpartum depression. What a violation this is! The media also uses very violent language in such circumstances. People gather, threaten to beat up the woman. There’s no such outrage when men commit such crimes. In countries like England, if a mother kills a child within one year of birth, it is not treated as culpable homicide,” Dr Veena says.
Under the Infanticide Act in England and Wales, postpartum depression is recognised as a partial defence to the murder of a child under 1 year of age by the mother. However, the news coverage in India when it comes to such stories is highly insensitive. Dr Veena recalls a case when a woman from Puthoor in Kerala, found out that she was four months pregnant and tried to medically terminate the pregnancy but could not. She tried to terminate the pregnancy herself at home but failed. Ultimately, after she gave birth, the woman choked the baby to death.
“She has to sign at the police station to mark her presence. But the trial has not moved. What can you possibly do in such situations?” questions Dr Veena.
Not surprisingly, many have questioned Dr Veena about the intentions of the film.
“They say that Reena was at first happy when telling her husband about the pregnancy, so why should she terminate it because he’s an abusive man? I want to first say that women often have to pretend that they’re happy. When the husband behaves abusively, she loses the relationship she has with him. Why should she continue to sleep with him or have a baby with him? People are unable to accept it,” she says.
Dr Veena points out that India has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty adopted by the United Nations, but that the situation of women in the country continues to be dire.
Watch (trigger warning: violence against children, postpartum depression):