Abortion: Are we more humane than Irish law?

Abortion: Are we more humane than Irish law?
Nov 19, 2012, 02.44AM IST TNN[ Dhananjay Mahapatra ]

A young Indian dentist died because she was denied a life-saving abortion by a gynaecologist fearing retribution from a religion-dictated law in Ireland. It triggered outrage in India and other countries.

The Irish government was forced to assure that it would make suitable changes in the legal framework to bring it in sync with its own Supreme Court’s 1992 judgment granting women the right to abortion where the mother’s life is at risk. New Delhi lost no time in summoning Irish envoy Felin McLaughlin to convey the “concern and angst in Indian society about the untimely and tragic death of Savita Halappanavar”. It is surprising that the Irish law supported denial of abortion even when the mother’s life was at risk. More than 15 years ago, their Supreme Court had held a man guilty of inflicting psychiatric injury on a woman for making numerous silent calls at night, some of which were accompanied by heavy breathing.

In Regina vs Burstow and Regina vs Ireland [1997 (4) All ER 74], the court had said, “Harassment of women by repeated silent telephone calls, accompanied on occasions by heavy breathing, is apparently a significant social problem. That the criminal law should be able to deal with this problem, and so far as is practicable, afford effective protection to victims is self evident.”

If the level of outrage over Halappanavar’s death was such to warrant summoning of the Irish envoy, why has the Union government not felt outraged by the horrifying social evils which continue to kill women and children in India and not taken steps to eradicate them? Let us take infant mortality rate as an indicator. In India, 47 of 1,000 newborn babies die every year. In Ireland, it is 3. Guyana (29), Botswana (20) and China (13) fare far better than India. These figures for India do not include female foeticide or female infanticide, which is a major reason behind the alarmingly skewed sex ratio in many states.

In Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) vs UOI [2001 (5) SCC 577], the Supreme Court had said that though Parliament had enacted the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in 1996, the practice of female foeticide and infanticide continued. It had said, “The traditional system of female infanticide whereby female baby is done away after birth by poisoning or letting her choke in husk continues in different forms by taking advantage of advanced medical techniques. Unfortunately, developed medical science is misused to get rid of a girl before birth… This has affected overall sex ratio in various states where female infanticide is prevailing without hindrance.”

It issued a series of directions to the Centre and the state governments to rigorously implement the law and crack down on diagnostic centres determining sex of a foetus. Diagnostic centres pasted notices outside their doors declaring that they do not determine sex of foetus. The governments took that as a solemn pledge and slunk into its usual slumber. Two years later, the SC took stock of the PNDT Act’s implementation and said, “We may state that there is total slackness by the administration in implementing the Act.” Sadly, we are yet to see candle light vigils or protests over the outrageous practice of female foeticide from leading lights of society.

We have not seen any such protest or outrage over the high incidence of maternal mortality. India ranks a shameful 18th in the world with 550 deaths per lakh. Ireland with just 6 was ranked 124 among 130 countries. Guyana with 110, Botswana 330 and China 55 were ranked much higher indicating their robust maternity healthcare system.

Being fatalists, we do not get outraged by lack of healthcare facilities resulting in the death of relatives. Well, the Union and state governments certainly do not feel ashamed for not been able to provide basic hospital facilities in rural areas, even after 62 years of self-governance.

Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh candidly admitted on Friday that in many parts of India, public health system does not exist.

“Today, the single most important reason for rural area indebtedness is expenditure on health. We all know that the health system in India has collapsed. India is a unique country in the world where the health expenditure is private expenditure,” Ramesh said.

Those who rightly pointed a finger at the legal system of Ireland while protesting Halappanavar’s death must not have noticed that in India, as many as 8,391 brides were killed in 2010 for not bringing sufficient dowry. Many of them were burnt. Well, chivalry and sensitivity has long been reduced to ashes in India.

This brings us to a strange side of Indian society. They turn a blind eye to these evil practices continuing to inflict serious damage to the plight of women but are always in the forefront when it comes to joining a global chorus in protesting an inhuman act. It is more so if it involves the death of an Indian abroad.


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