The atmosphere in the United States has been charged since the leaked first draft majority opinion of the Supreme Court, which overturned the Roe V Wade ruling of 1973. This landmark judgment protected the abortion rights of women against state restrictions, upholding them as a constitutional right to privacy. The released initial draft, written by Justice Samuel Alito, states, "It is time to heed the constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives." This means that the choice to ban or allow abortion now rests with the respective U.S. state legislatures. .
At least 1 in every 4 women in the U.S. is expected to get an abortion at least once in their lifetime. This would imply that their reproductive rights will be subject to class privilege vis-a-vis their ability to fly to geographical locations where abortion is legal or the liberal nature of the state legislatures that will continue to "grant" women these abortion rights.
With more than 20 states already having laws in place to ban abortion once Roe is overturned, this is likely to change the discourse on reproductive rights of women not just in the U.S. but also globally. It is to be noted that we live in an interconnected world wherein most discourses, especially those of such impact and magnitude, don’t take place in a vacuum. One needs to realise and understand the ramifications of such a law globally. . The debate about pro-choice vs. pro-life is layered with complications of ethics and agency in the context of women’s control over their own bodies and reproductive health. The pro-life lobby, dominated by Catholic and right-wing thinkers argues that all life is sacred and valuable and must be protected by the state, whilst the pro-choice bloc, spearheaded by liberals and feminists, argues that abortion is a private (where the state has no place for interference) and individual matter based on the agency of no one but the pregnant woman herself.
However, one might use Nancy Fraser’s idea of Perspective Dualism (drawn from Freidrich Neitzche) which requires us to use an intersectional lens which takes into account both the political-economic (retribution) and socio-cultural (recognition) status in analysing structural issues and ideas. This makes us question the very idea of pregnancy being just a women’s issue, and if it can be looked at singularly disjunct from other structures of patriarchy, capitalism, and nationalism. So when we talk about the moral responsibility trope used by Roman Catholicism, we need to understand how it burdens women, who are seen as carriers of ‘moral code’ in any society and how their bodies then become repositories of such codes. Taming and controlling their bodies using tools at the disposal of the state, religion, and capitalism are some of the ways patriarchy has successfully maintained the status quo. So any debate on abortion rights should bring into its ambit the larger issues of control of women’s bodies, feminist agency, right to privacy, etc., which are transnationally engulfing. So Roe v. Wade is not just an American issue, it’s a global issue.
This makes us wonder how this is likely to shape or re-shape the existing trans-national movements on abortion rights. What impact will it have on the Indian movement for the right to privacy and the agency of gender minority groups?
The Roe judgement became a precedent to other judicial rulings worldwide, including India, when it came to defining the rights of women and other gender minority groups. So, when women realised the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in 1973, it inspired and emboldened movements around the world, providing them with the language of emancipation and the right to exercise agency over their bodies, thereby asserting their fundamental right to privacy.
When Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code was repealed in 2017 to decriminalise homosexuality in India, a lot of activists drew parallels with the Roe v. Wade case. This landmark judgment in Indian judicial history was seen as a reconciliation of their fundamental right to privacy as was recognised in the 1973 U.S. pro-abortion judgement.
In the case of abortion rights, the Indian feminist movement has been grappling with it for over four decades now. However, the contextual specificity of India makes this much more complicated. Increased cases of forced abortions, female foeticide driven by illegal sex determination, population control, family planning concerns , the use of abortion as a tool to perpetuate caste and religious purity, and so on are all overlapping issues that must be addressed in the larger discourse on Indian reproductive rights and freedom. The common thread that binds the struggle against anti-abortion legislation in both the U.S. and India is that since women continue to bear the responsibility of child-rearing in most cultures, they should have the right to determine under what circumstances they are willing to have a child or if they are willing to have a child at all. Also, the ‘pro-life’ lobby needs to be held accountable for over-simplifying the idea of ‘every life matters’. It needs to be understood that in the case of a pregnant woman, it isn’t about the rights of TWO individuals but rather one individual dependent on the other—a life growing inside another life. After birth, this child is often the mother's sole responsibility, who frequently subsumes her life in their early rearing, which has ramifications in other aspects of her own life: economic, social, political, and so on.
So, while geographical contextual differences exist, one must consider the implications of such a decision in our own country. We need to reckon how we can enrich this discourse on the reproductive rights of women. We must consider not only the various affirmative actions that the legislative and judicial branches must take in order to envision a gender-just world, but also the larger transformative changes that can be negotiated in order to challenge systemic patriarchal oppression. This debate is an opportunity to bring up larger questions. The imperative needs to use a lens of feminist jurisprudence to analyse laws and their gendered impacts, to think about gender issues from an intersectional lens. For instance, what does it mean for a black woman or one from a lower caste/class to not have access to safe abortion’ facilities? Also, how would abortion bans impact the existing gender pay gap? What would it mean for women and their self-expression? Will such legislation curtailing reproductive rights further the capitalist patriarchal agenda of controlling women’s bodies and rights to privacy? These are some of the questions that must be considered and brought to the forefront of public debate in order to challenge the 'pro-life' narrative, which masks a slew of other ideas.
While it goes without saying that feminists must always defend the right of all women to safe and legally sanctioned abortion, we must also advocate for women to have greater control over our bodies and to exercise rights that allow us to experience full personhood. Across the world, we need to find convergence in leveraging this debate to think about the pervasiveness of patriarchy, the interconnectedness of oppression and to think of greater bodily autonomy beyond abortion rights.
(This article is written by Nehal Agarwalla. She works as a Community Associate & Researcher at Femme First Foundation.)