Photograph: Paul Mezzer/FRF/Getty via The Irish Times

From well-intentioned comments about our weight and skin colour, to the insidious experience of being followed as we walk on the street, women are wearily aware that their bodies are public property.  The proposed change to the abortion law does little to address this, but at the very least it offers some relief to the victims of rape – the ultimate violence that occupies the dark end of a spectrum of suggestions, unsolicited remarks, straying hands and force.

Whether they acknowledge the patriarchy or not, opponents of abortion ultimately seek to maintain a status quo that limits women’s bodily autonomy and coerces them into permanent motherhood or life-threatening illegal procedures. While people who are against abortion do not need to have one, it is strange that they feel entitled to make this decision on behalf of every fertile woman in Sri Lanka, ignorant of context and untouched by the consequences of their actions.

It is possible to lobby to make Sri Lanka a better place for unwed mothers, to improve the quality of life of disabled people and demand that resources be allocated to improve existing systems of social care for children, but in doing so, you have to still accept that this debate happens in the gritty, unpleasant, cash-strapped version of Sri Lanka, not the utopian version we sell in our civics books.

Opponents of abortion might believe that life is sacred, and must be protected at all costs and to legalize abortion would violate the inalienable right to life. The consensus on when life begins is a murky area for scientists and ethicists alike, perhaps because defining the characteristics of life is a complicated endeavour. Whether it is at conception or on the basis of possessing a consciousness, spine, capacity for pain, or heartbeat, there is no clear or arbitrary basis by which we define when life starts.

But let’s just assume that life begins at conception. Are we forced to acknowledge that the foetus has the same moral standing as a human female in society? Why should the state apparatus prioritize a bundle of cells at the expense of the physical wellbeing, mental health, dreams and aspirations of an established member of society?

The pro-life stance posits that the right to life of a foetus outweighs the choice of the adult. But this choice severely impacts the quality of life of that individual for the rest of their life. We recognize that mere existence is not living, and human beings should have the right to a quality of life, which is why we try to combat poverty and envision a world without traffic. We even support efforts to curtail potential lives on the basis that quality is more important than quantity. When contraception and family planning is promoted, it is done so on the principle that more children is not always a good thing. We concede that children should not be born into families that are unable and unwilling to support them.

The right to life is considered so inalienable, because life is sacred. Who decides what is sacred and why, is a question which does not usually have a secular answer. Furthermore, it is clear from the abundant death and destruction around us, that not all permutations of life gain the sacred stamp of approval. In many countries it is legal for terminally ill patients to end their own lives, as tangible quality of life is more important than an abstract sacred concept of life. Moreover, an individual can sign orders instructing doctors not to resuscitate him, underlining the fact that people can choose in some way or form, to reject life. In Sri Lanka, we accept and even glorify, the ending of lives in war and in self-defense, where self-interest overrules sanctity. In instances where people are on life support or in a coma, some states afford their next of kin the choice to terminate care. These examples are not meant to trivialize life or suggest that murder is a desirable hobby, but rather to emphasize the fact that the blanket claim “life is sacred,” is simplistic and cruelly insulting to the individuals who have had to make these difficult choices. It is not a zero sum game. These decisions are not easy, but they are facilitated by state structures, thus entrusting those who know the most about their situation, to make a decision suited to them. It acknowledges the messy reality of life and trusts people to weigh costs and benefits and make complex moral decisions in a grey and confusing world.

The more interesting question though, is not if we are permitted to end life, but if we are obliged to save one.

Consider an onlooker who chances upon a man drowning in a river. He is not legally bound to jump in and save the drowning man, even if he is an excellent swimmer and the only person in sight; essentially the best and only candidate for the job. He may do so, based on his own moral code and values, but we do not dictate that he must suffer risks or even exert himself, to save the life of another. Scaling up this logic, the state does not require that we become compulsory organ donors upon our death, even if this would save multiple lives, at zero cost to our own for obvious reasons. States cannot compel us to be superheroes, because they realize these instances are so context dependent. Women are the only exemption. The same onlooker has no obligation to stop a woman getting raped, but once she is raped and pregnant, she is expected to sustain the life of a foetus, despite the risks and effects of pregnancy. Women are expected to bear the ordeal of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, and put their dreams on hold, so that they can sustain another human.

They are forced to do so, because motherhood and pregnancy are still extolled as things that all women, deep down in their shrewish hearts, should want. We think that abortion is unacceptable because we do not entertain the notion that women’s reasons for avoiding motherhood are valid. It is worth considering that those who support abortion do not abhor motherhood. Rather, they consider it a life-changing decision that is too important to be left to whims of fate. Right now, motherhood hovers over every fertile woman in Sri Lanka, and we can do nothing but place our trust in the reliability of condoms and the goodness of men.


Editors note: Also read The Abortion Debate: Mismatched and Misplaced?, The Abortion Debate: The Absence of Questions. Abortion, Women and Personhood and “Let Women Decide: Some Feminist Perspectives on the Abortion Debate” on the same issue, published recently on Groundviews.