Photo courtesy of NBC News
The title of this article is taken from a collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood who has attained celebrity cult status recently due to her dystopic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which presciently identified the female body as a central focus for the vigilance and control exerted by an autocratic patriarchal state.
While researching this article, a quotation from The Handmaid’s Tale kept surfacing. “Afterwards, she could not walk for a week, her feet would not fit into her shoes, they were too swollen. It was the feet they’d do, for a first offense. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands. They didn’t care what they did to your feet or your hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes, your feet and your hands are not essential.”
This was the terrible moment that the narrator realised that a woman in the fictional state of Gilead was only judged to be of value and worth if she had functional reproductive organs. In fact, the status of women as human beings had been so reduced in Gilead that their reproductive capacity was the only one which was assigned any positive significance at all. But it was utilised by the state.
A society’s attitudes to women and the rights which women are accorded by its lawmakers are an accurate index of the society’s level of misogyny and the degree and dimensions of its patriarchal foundations. For an unborn child’s rights to be upheld over the rights of its mother is to relegate the woman who bears the child to a lesser status. Her life trajectory will be changed forever by the child’s birth: economically, psychologically and developmentally. She should have the right to choose if and when her life circumstances are best for those changes to occur.
This is why attitudes to abortion are being fiercely challenged. In the US, a country fractured and divided by sharply binary thinking in matters of voting, a person is either pro life (anti abortion) or pro choice (anti control of women’s right to choose whether or not to have children).
The landmark case Roe v. Wade recognised 50 years ago that decisions regarding pregnancy occurred in a private space and that individual choices and personal circumstances were not clearcut and predictable. Women’s right to decide when realising that they were pregnant whether or not to carry a child to term was seen and legally upheld 50 years ago as a complex and significant choice with long term effects on her life and her psyche.
This week, that decision was reversed by members of a conservative majority Supreme Court, bringing the country that promotes itself as being most progressive in human rights and a beacon of democracy more into line with less progressive nations in this area such as Sri Lanka where a woman’s legal right to abortion has never been recognised or upheld.
According to the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka (FPA), abortions in Sri Lanka may currently be performed only to save the life of the mother. Abortion for any other reason is regarded as a criminal offence.
Illegal abortions, which in Sri Lanka include all other categories of termination, are dangerous to the women who undergo them. The FPA states that this is because “They are done by unqualified people under unhygienic conditions, using instruments which are not sterile. There can be serious damage to the womb and vagina, excessive bleeding, dangerous infection and tetanus. The girl may find she is unable to get pregnant again. Illegal abortion may cause death due to these severe complications.”
The very word abortion immediately signals a sort of binary tug of war between the beliefs underlying pro life and pro choice. The general pro life assumption is that the act of abortion is murder of a foetus, a life, a child. In contrast, in the pro life side it is seen as the choice of the carrier to not carry a foetus to term and thereafter care for a child.
Yet is abortion this simple? No. Not for the person who is faced with the choice to have one. Which is why the disproportionate number of men who are never directly faced with this choice themselves and yet are placed in powerful decision making positions on this issue, is manifestly inappropriate.
Medically, the definition of abortion is the ending of a pregnancy via medical intervention. According to Mediline Plus which is part of the National Library of Medicine in the US, an abortion is “a procedure to end a pregnancy. It uses medicine or surgery to remove the embryo or fetus and placenta from the uterus. The procedure is done by a licensed health care professional.”
Abortions are sought by those with a uterus who don’t wish to enter into motherhood due to economic reasons, psychological reasons and, in certain instances, due to trauma like rape or abuse or if the baby is suffering from a life threatening condition. Giving birth is not merely about carrying a foetus to full term; it also entails caring for a baby into adulthood. That is not a decision one can or should enter into lightly.
The pressure on women to marry and settle down is one aspect of societal control. Following on from that is the pressure to have children. The family unit of father, mother and children is at the core of almost every image of nationhood celebrated at new year. Father as provider, mother as nurturer. To disrupt the inevitability of that powerful narrative of progression is to threaten the concept of the world as conservative people think of it. Individualism and women’s individual choices are already restricted and eroded in a society which normalises patriarchy, and where women are expected to conform to the expectations and preferences of men.
Abortion carries with it the weight of society’s opinion, expectations and judgments upon the individual considering it. In many countries, abortion is banned due to religious, social and cultural reasons. Those reasons are without exception based in a fear and suspicion of female sexuality, disapproval of liberated or “westernised” women’s perceived sexual freedom and a desire to control a woman’s sexual conduct and reproductive capacity. The banning of abortions has seen the flourishing of illegal and hidden abortion clinics and the execution of unsafe abortions that lead to maternal deaths as well as infections and other complications. Practitioners of illegal abortions cannot be held accountable; their activities are unregulated and they are immune from the consequences of the harm they may cause.
The overturning of the Roe v. Wade, which allowed women the constitutional right over their own bodies – that is, the ability to seek abortion if they wish to – has led to an outcry from many in the US where a majority of women wish to have autonomy over their own bodies. Although states such as New York and California remain liberal with their abortion laws, states such as Texas are imposing draconian rules that include the possible arrest of a healthcare worker if they are found to have carried out an abortion and encouraging people to report on others if they suspect such a procedure has been conducted.
Why did the US Supreme Court overturn this judgment? It is primarily founded in the religious – in this instance, Christian – belief that abortion is the murder of a unborn child’s life. Pro life advocates see this as a gross violation of the rights of a foetus. The pro choice advocates ask then is it fair that a person with a uterus is expected to carry a life if they choose not to? Also what about childcare? Support? It is not just about carrying a foetus to term; it is also about caring for that baby until they attain adulthood.
Restrictive laws in this area affect women from lower socio-economic backgrounds far more harshly. In a developing country this affects the majority of women, particularly in the current economic crisis.
In Sri Lanka, despite attempts to amend the abortion laws to reflect the actual complexity of real life situations, there has been no progress due to pressure from religious leaders and a society deeply embedded in patriarchal views. A UNFPA report revealed that more than 600 abortions a day happen in Sri Lanka. These are just the reported numbers. The UNFPA study said that the majority of these abortions – 80% – are sought by married women over the age of 30 since many married women did not use contraception, which led to unwanted pregnancies and thereafter abortions.
Sri Lanka in 2022 is still a traditional society in its outlook with Victorian ideals where premarital sex is frowned upon and the weight of others’ opinions overcome the value placed on an individual’s independence, dignity, sanity and happiness. Young women are kept in ignorance of their bodies and grow up in a society that routinely objectifies them. Sex education is focused only on biology and not discussed in the context of emotional relationships. When these young women do fall in love or wish to connect intimately with a partner, basic concepts of consent are often not clear to either party. Ignorance, repression and familial shaming lead to carelessness and uncertainty and inconvenient and unwanted pregnancy.
However, although abortion is illegal, morning after pills are legally obtainable in Sri Lanka, can be ordered online, are about 95% effective if taken immediately after unprotected intercourse and are available over the counter with no prescription required.
Planned pregnancy on a societally acceptable level is not possible in a state that criminalises sexual reproductive choice after conception and makes abortions illegal. The Netherlands, in contrast, is hailed for having a low abortion rate due to comprehensive sex education, contraception freely available for all and legalised abortion.
This leads us to ask the question whether abortions are regulated because doing so is lazily seen as a punitive way of controlling promiscuity. After the fact? Because if one is supposed to remain with a single partner (as advocated by certain mainstream religions) then those with multiple partners and those who engage in pre-marital sex are by definition committing a “sin”. However, statistics showing that it is married women who constitute the majority of those seeking abortions is an indicator that it is other reasons – economic and psychological – that lead them to this decision. The promiscuity argument does not carry weight here and it is not rampant unprotected teenage sex that is leading to such decisions. Why are the husbands in these marriages not getting vasectomies performed once both partners have decided they have had enough children? Is it the same reason that many men don’t want to use contraceptive protection? To minimise their discomfort and maximise their own pleasure even at the expense of the health and safety of their partner?
Sex education is an important area in which Sri Lanka falls short due to ongoing cultural and religious restraints. A school text book on sex education – Hathe Ape Potha – was demonised by certain members of the clergy due to its references to masturbation. If sexuality is seen as an aspect of human life that should only be explored in sanctified marriage, with attitudes like this, it is no wonder that people grow up with no proper sex education and instead turn to sources such as internet porn and purple prose novels for sex education, none of which offer accurate, helpful or empowering information on the subject.
In more progressive societies, the need for a properly organised sex life is seen as a fundamental right. Once individuals decide they want to explore their sexuality, they need to know how to protect themselves from STDs as well as unwanted pregnancy. To use the fear of getting pregnant to differentially scare girls into passive non experimentation is to throw them into the arms of opportunistic predators, met both in real life and online, who would take advantage of their ignorance. With Sri Lanka’s high rates of sexual assault, it’s important to know that the morning after pill is offered free of charge at government hospitals to anyone who is admitted after sexual assault and a very limited amount is available at the Ministry of Health clinics to be given free to those who have urgent need. It’s relatively high cost, so stocks are low.
In this environment, punitive and regressive abortion laws only pave the way for illegal, unsafe abortions. The WHO states “Lack of access to safe, timely, affordable and respectful abortion care is a critical public health and human rights issue.” From a gender equality point of view, the question that needs to be asked is, if a woman’s body is regulated by the state then why not that of a man? After all, one man can impregnate thousands of women whereas a woman can get pregnant only once every nine months. So why is it that the higher incident risk owner is not regulated? Why aren’t men asked to have vasectomies until they are ready to procreate or once they are done procreating? Why is it only the uterus owner bearing the brunt of this regulation? Clearly, the belief is that women’s bodies must be controlled. This belief is inherently biased and unjust; the important thing is to understand that one cannot regulate another human being’s body based on gender skewed laws and then claim to be upholding human rights.
Even for organ donation, after a person is dead, they have to have given their consent for that purpose. If not, the organs cannot be taken from a dead body. So why is a living uterus owner expected to give someone else their bodily autonomy without consent when the consequences to them of doing so during their life are often negative, ongoing and significant?
A person forced to subject themselves to the harm (both in body and mind) of giving birth to and bringing up a child without wanting to do so, is being forced to give up their own pursuit of life, liberty and happiness and to starve their own aspirations. Whose right to life are we for? Whose fullness of life are we against?
The world does not subscribe to one religion nor can one prioritise one religion over another. Hence is it fair to use a religious basis to determine the bodily autonomy of someone who does not subscribe to that religion or its belief system? “My God is greater than yours” is not a valid argument. Also, many religions are patriarchal in their execution of their faith. This is problematic as it is without imposing more restrictions based on it. For the state to say “society’s need for control is greater than your need for freedom and self expression, and self regulation” is disrespectful to everyone with a uterus.