While the battle over abortion rights in the US has grabbed the eyeballs of the world, not many know about the battles fought over women’s wombs in our own country or other lesser-known communities.

A woman talking to a medical professional in a clinicIMAGE FOR REPRESENTATION | PICXY.COM/YOGEN010
Voices Women's Rights Friday, July 01, 2022 - 19:00

The entrenched patriarchal roots in the home of ‘The Free and the Brave’ have been exposed once more. The landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling which gave American women agency over their own wombs was overthrown. They once more lost their right to decide for themselves whether they want an abortion or not. That battle will have to be fought all over again. But there are so many other battles to be fought too before women get actual autonomy over that one crucial organ in their body. Because the very organ that should actually give them more power is also the one that is targeted for maximum exploitation.

In Asian countries it gets more complicated. In India, for example, unlike in the US, we have no religious reason for banning abortion. In fact, abortion in India has been legal for the last 50 years with the introduction of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act passed in 1971. The Act was amended in 2003 to enable women’s accessibility to safe and legal abortion services.

But we do have a ban on sex selective abortion for some very valid reasons. Our girl babies are disappearing at a very rapid rate even before they are born. If this isn’t stopped, it can lead to a dangerous imbalance in the male-female ratio in our population and prove disastrous to our entire nation in the long run. This can only be stemmed by preventing couples from choosing to eliminate the foetus only because it is female. It’s got nothing to do with pro-life or pro-choice as the Western world sees it. It’s got everything to do with our patriarchal mindset which believes a boy is more valuable than a girl.

The point also is that sex selective abortion can be harmful to a woman’s womb. I’ve known women who have aborted several female foetuses in the hope of bearing the much-coveted male child. The decision to go through this is most often not their own. It is thrust upon them by a society which believes that while a woman’s womb is essential for procreation, she herself is a second-class citizen whose health and well-being is not a priority. And so, when a community runs out of girls, women are imported from socially disadvantaged areas and used for procreation.

But do women really have agency over their own wombs in any part of the world? While the battle over abortion rights in the US has grabbed the eyeballs of the world, not many know about the battles fought over women’s wombs in our own country or other lesser-known communities.

Take, for instance, the case of the forced hysterectomies performed on the women sugarcane cutters of Beed in Maharashtra. Young women sugarcane cutters in their prime reproductive age are pushed into having their uteruses removed so that they can work continuously without having to deal with messy menstruation and pregnancies.

In 2019, the Maharashtra government set up a seven-member committee to investigate the unusually high number of hysterectomies being performed on women as young as 20 years in Beed. Activists and social workers in the area had been flagging this as a matter of concern for a couple of years before the government woke up to it. The committee’s report, among other concerns, raised questions about whether there was a nexus between the mukadams (contractors who supply labour to sugarcane growers) and the gynaecologists who performed the operations in private hospitals, as all of them stood to gain financially.

Beed is a drought-prone area from where families migrate every year for about six months to work in the sugarcane fields in other parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Almost all of them are very poor and illiterate. The women are married by the time they are 13 and often have two or three children before they are 20. And that is when their problems begin.

The irony is that women in these areas are married off early because their own parents do not want to deal with having a vulnerable daughter who may get pregnant. The other irony is that if the woman does not reproduce within a few years, she is considered barren and her husband could start looking for another wife. No one even thinks of the impact these pregnancies have on a woman who is forced to use her still immature womb to bear babies. When the women complain of aches and pains or vaginal discharge, the contractor-gynaec nexus points them to the ‘easiest’ way out – hysterectomy.

I have also often been asked how my feminist sensibilities can accept women being used as surrogates to carry other people’s babies. I feel that women can use their own bodies the way they choose to. If they want to use their bodies to earn money to sustain their families, it is ok as long as they are not harming themselves in the process. The harm happens when money making agents begin to exploit them.

Take, for instance, the 16-year-old girl from Tamil Nadu who was in the news recently because she complained to the police that she had been forced to sell her eggs eight times over the last couple of years. Her own mother and her mother’s partner were responsible for getting this underage girl’s eggs illegally harvested and selling them to different clinics at R 20,000 per batch. The partner had also sexually exploited her, but that is a different story.

According to both the recently passed Surrogacy Bill and the medical guidelines that were in place before, only married women with proven fertility are allowed to ‘donate’ eggs and that too only for a specific number of times with gaps in between. Obviously, every law had been breached in the case of this minor. I had come across a similar case when I was researching my book Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy. A young woman was made to donate her eggs several times within a few years and ended up with severe health problems. In all such cases, the blame lies squarely with the ‘handlers’ who push the vulnerable women to take actions that may cause them to harm themselves. In the case of the TN girl, her handler was her own mother who is also apparently a donor.

So whose womb is it anyway? Does it belong to me alone? Or do my husband or partner or other random family members have a right over it? Can society tell me how and when and if I should produce babies? Should medical technology like scanning and DNA testing – meant to help pregnant women – be weaponised and used to prevent more women from being born? Should safe abortion under medical supervision be denied to women who need it because of any reason?

These are almost imponderable questions because humans with wombs are vulnerable to many kinds of pressure. Physical, emotional, religious, moral, financial. Who has a right to decide except the woman herself? But can she?

Gita Aravamudan is a journalist and the author of Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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