Mortal stakes

Mortal stakes

Jug Suraiya
20 November 2012, 10:14 PM IST

Is your life your own, or it is ‘owned’ by someone or something else, the religion or the country you belong to?

Such questions have again been raised because of the tragic case of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish clinic when doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy that was causing her agonising pain and which eventually claimed her life.

Ireland, a Catholic country, does not permit abortions even when the mother’s life is at risk. Savita’s death has provoked an international condemnation of Ireland’s antiquated laws which put pregnant women at mortal risk. Many expectant mothers in the Irish Republic who, for medical or other reasons, are in need of an abortion cross the border into Northern Ireland, where such procedures are legal.

Pressure is mounting on the Irish government to change its laws, which as yet do not clearly define when exactly it is that an unborn foetus can be deemed to have a life of its own. Does life begin at conception? Does it begin six months after conception? Does it begin when the foetus is capable of surviving outside the womb? These questions are open to various contentious answers. Exactly when what we call life begins remains elusive to the clumsy machinery of the law.

The anti-abortion lobby – which calls itself ‘pro-life’ – bases its stand on the argument that life is a divine gift and the termination of it is not just an unjustifiable act in law but an act of sacrilege, not just a crime but an unforgivable sin. But as pro-choice proponents have pointed out, an inflexible ‘pro-life’ stance can become its reverse; it can become ‘pro-death’, as it did with Savita.

In most countries, including India, the medical termination of pregnancy is a legally sanctioned option, particularly when the mother’s life may be in danger. If you are in a life-threatening situation, the law allows you to save yourself by whatever means possible, even if it involves the endangering or the taking of another life.

Indeed India may be said to be the reverse image of Ireland in that here not just legal abortions but criminal female foeticide is tragically commonplace. Though gender determination tests – a preliminary to foeticide – are banned by law, they continue to be conducted by unscrupulous practitioners who must be deemed to be accomplices to the womb-murder of a foetus whose only defect was that of belonging to the wrong sex.

While the Indian legal system seems to be incapable of putting a stop to what might be called gendercide – the systematic elimination of female infants – it takes a stringently ‘pro-life’ view of attempted suicide, which is still a crime according to our statute books. It has been argued that the right to life must also include the right to choose to terminate a life that has become so physically intolerable because of pain and disability that it can no longer be described as a genuinely human life. Countries like The Netherlands and Switzerland allow medically assisted termination of existence for those suffering from incurable and painful diseases which have turned the gift of life into a curse.

Ireland certainly needs to change its so-called ‘pro-life’ laws. But for similar humanitarian reasons, India and other countries need to re-look their anti-choice legislation regarding that complementary part of life that we call death.


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