Sunday, February 10, 2008

Abort! Abort!

Another weekend, another protracted and pointless discussion on Ultra Violet. My own fault for trying to scratch beneath the surface of these posts instead of just nodding along, I suppose. I don't know why I bother [1].

This one involves a post by one Sharanya Manivannan which is intriguing only for how little it says and how long it takes to say it. Ms. Manivannan starts by telling us that even though we are entitled to have our own opinions on whether abortion is right or not, we must recognize that illegal abortions put women at risk and therefore it's important that women be permitted to choose - an argument she dwells on for a bit before concluding that it isn't particularly relevant in a country (India) where women have the legal right to have abortions.

This little digression over, she finally gets to what she really wants to say, which is to claim that women choosing abortions still face social disapproval. She describes this disapproval by saying that she can't remember the last time she heard a conversation about abortion that didn't involve "a hushed whisper, a disapproving tone or cluck of the tongue" by which what she really means is that women who choose to have abortions are seen as 'loose women' and that "The easiest way to damage a single woman’s reputation in India is to spread a rumour about her multiple abortions", though she doesn't, of course, say this (or says it only after a protracted comment exchange), simply expects us to somehow infer it.

What we're not supposed to infer, meanwhile, is that she would like to see a world where abortion was a casual act, free of any trauma or regret for the people involved. It's not that she doesn't believe this - she does. Or might. In any case, we're not supposed to infer it.

The summary of her post (as far as I can tell) is that it would be nice if women didn't have to face social censure over their choice to have an abortion - a pretty, if somewhat trite sentiment, which comes without any discussion of how this is to be achieved, particularly if it's acceptable for people to hold the view that abortion is wrong (as she seems to accept at the start of her post).

The problem, I think, is that Ms. Manivannan is confusing acceptance with approval. It is unrealistic to expect that the large numbers of people who see abortion as wrong or unethical are going to change their mind about it anytime soon. Indeed, it is not clear to me why they should (they're entitled to their opinion, after all) and I certainly don't think it's going to happen if we simply dismiss their issues as irrelevant. We can certainly expect and demand that their disapproval not be allowed to interfere in a woman's exercise of her right to have an abortion, or that it not be allowed to take that right away from her. And we can hope, in the name of a civil society, that they not harass women who have had an abortion (not 'honor' their choices, perhaps, but keep silent about them), and that they distinguish between disapproving of the act and disapproving of the actor. Though even that may be hoping for too much.

The real issue, of course (which is mentioned in Ms. Manivannan's post, but which she never really discusses) is that in a patriarchal world where women are often not economically empowered, and are therefore dependent on social approval, they may not have the ability to make independent choices that fly in the face of social censure. This is a valid concern - to the extent that it is true (I personally have no idea how serious the social taboo against abortion really is, I'm taking other people's word for the fact that it is serious), but the solution to it is is not to expect social attitudes to magically change to approve of women's choices. That's putting the cart before the horse. The solution to the problem of lack of real choice (with abortions, and more generally) is to work towards empowering women so that they can exercise their rights without having to rely on the approval of others. That empowerment, is also, of course, the way to change social attitudes themselves, but their key role is not to reduce social disapproval but to make it irrelevant. If empowerment doesn't happen, social attitudes won't change either. If it does, then social attitudes will probably change as well, but by then they won't matter that much anyway.

Of course, creating empowerment is a long and difficult process, but it's not like there's an alternative, is there? Certainly legitimizing the dependence of women on social approval while dreamily imagining that social mores will change doesn't help. As I've said before, I believe that those who oppose abortion should have every opportunity to state their case, and to do whatever they can to influence a woman's decision to have an abortion. If we disagree with them, and want to counteract their influence, we need to do so by creating a counter-community of people who support and celebrate a woman's right to have an abortion - which, of course, is what the pro-life vs. pro-choice dynamic, that Ms. Mannivannan so airily dismisses, is all about.

Finally, on abortions as a 'casual' choice. It seems unlikely to me that we'll ever get to the point where choosing to have an abortion will be an easy choice for the majority of women to make. I think it's safe to say that for most women choosing to have an abortion is a difficult, traumatic decision, and I think it would be even without the threat of social censure or the taboo (such as it is) around abortions. We can debate whether this emotional involvement comes from some kind of physiological maternal instinct, or from socially conditioned beliefs in the sanctity of life and parenthood. It certainly goes much beyond the threat of reprisals over the fact of having had an abortion, and beyond any narrow definition of gender role. Whether we want to see abortions become less of an emotional issue is a function of how important we see some of these factors being, but it's worth noting that the social values involved are deeply embedded in our social fabric, and imagining a world where abortion would not, by and large, be an emotionally charged choice, means imagining a world with a social and ethical superstructure dramatically different from the one we have today. Can such a superstructure be imagined? Yes, I think so. But I'm unsure that it would lead to a better, more egalitarian world than the one we've got now. At any rate, the whole question strikes me as being somewhat irrelevant to the immediate issue at hand. In any reasonably foreseeable future, abortion will remain a traumatic and emotionally troubling choice for everyone concerned, and therefore one that is difficult to talk about, even for those of us who don't disapprove of it.

Recognizing that, rather than trying to deny it for the sake of some ideology, is actually critical to taking the first steps towards opposing the kind of social censure that Ms. Manivannan claims is common. Much of the trouble, I suspect, is that the only people who freely declaim their views on abortion are those who don't recognize that it is a difficult choice for the women making it - and these are almost always the people who not only disapprove of abortions but have managed to convince themselves that the women who choose to have abortions treat them casually (hence their indignation). It's not clear to me that public opinion is really so staunchly anti-abortion. I think it's possible that it simply seems that way because those of us who are sensitive to the trauma involved find it awkward to talk about, so that all the air time goes to the anti-abortion zealots, leaving women who have abortions feeling victimized. The question to ask then, as I've said before, is not what we can do to change the minds of those who are against abortion, but how we can find ways to express our support and solidarity with women who do have abortions so they don't feel so alone. I'm not sure what the answer to that question is - maybe abortion support groups, maybe new pro-abortion depictions in the arts / media, maybe clearer, more concise blog posts - but it certainly seems to me that that is the right question to be asking.

[1] Actually, I do know why I bother - because I think the underlying issues are important, and deserve more careful consideration than they typically get - but I think I need to be less obsessive about it, don't you? From now on I'm making what I'm going to call the Falstaff Resolution. I will write one comment critiquing what I see as wrong with a post, and unless I get an intelligent, constructive response which suggests that the person is actually interested in engaging in a real discussion, I will LET IT GO! There. And I'm asking you, the reader, to help me stick to this resolution. If you see me going on and on about something [2], either on this blog or elsewhere, please call me on it - just leave a comment saying: 'Vade Retro Falstaff' or something along those lines. Seriously.

[2] After this post, obviously.


Veena said...

Agree. You need to stop picking up fights all over the blogosphere. I mean, you have a reputation to maintain and all. I am compiling a running list of blogs you have fought with more than once that I will send over soon - you should just stop visiting them.

Seriously though, with you all the way on this one. I find it quite difficult to imagine this whole new world where abortion is not a traumatic and troubling choice for everyone concerned and utterly fail to see how this world is any better than the one we live in.

Also, this social taboo towards abortion in desh. I am unconvinced that this is anywhere as serious a taboo as some other things. The reason why a single woman's reputation is ruined when people find out she's had multiple abortions, imo, is not because of the abortion but because of the sex out of marriage bit. Also, an unwed mother is a much bigger issue than a single woman who's had an abortion, no?

Anonymous said...

Falstaff: Like any self-respecting scholar, can you please include an abstract of your blogpost before the post itself?

Second, isn't part of the trauma embedded in the construction of the foetus as human life? No one, except for Catholic fundamentalists, feels, for example, emotional trauma at birth control because we recognize that sperm are not "potential life". So, yes, in addition to providing women with support for their abortion choices, we can also instil doubt in the minds of pro-lifers about whether what the definition of life is.

Finally, while I agree with you that silence itself is not convincing evidence that there is social disapproval, I think the fact that abortions are concealed somehow is evidence that women perceive social disapproval. I would argue that perception is as potent as reality. Yes, one may not talk much about death but one certainly doesn't conceal the fact of its having happened - very unlike abortion I think.


Anonymous said...

In the last comment, the last line in the second paragraph should have read " we can also instil doubt in the minds of pro-lifers about what the definition of life is."


Falstaff said...

veena: Wait, you mean I have reputation for something other than picking random fights?

Haan, send list, though in all fairness you can't include Ultra Violet on it - some of their contributors are entirely worth the read, one just has to figure out which ones to avoid.

And glad to know you agree, though the whole how big is the taboo in desh really question is not one I feel qualified to go into.

n!: What makes you think I'm self-respecting?

Agree with you entirely about debating the pro-lifers - though that requires taking their point of view seriously and discussing it (or being perceived to discuss it) with an open mind. And in this case I'm not sure that Roman Catholics are the ones we're dealing with.

Finally, I don't know. I suppose the urge to conceal may suggest social censure, though it may also reflect a reluctance to talk about an unpleasant choice (the death of a loved one, is, after all, rarely a choice we make for ourselves). In any case, as long as you believe that what we're faced with is a perception of widespread disapproval rather than widespread disapproval itself, then finding ways to voice contrary views is still the answer, no?

Unmana said...

I also agree that the disapproval of abortions has much to do with the disapproval of premarital sex AND the idea that women's bodies should remain private/secret and not be talked about (as in menstruation, for instance). I don't know how much of it has to do with abortion per se.

km said...

Interesting how morality and ethics travel across cultures. America has come to accept premarital sex but abortion is a big deal. India probably has the reverse attitude.

Falstaff said...

unmana: Yes, I think that's possible. The interesting question to ask, I think, is whether married women who have abortions find it easier to talk about than unmarried women. If the issue is really premarital sex then we'd expect it to be easier for married women, wouldn't we? I don't know that abortion conversations are any easier for married women, or that the urge to conceal is any less. So either there's a different (but equal) source of disapproval at work there, or it isn't about social disapproval of premarital sex at all. It's something to think about, though I don't know enough to judge.

Obviously, the reluctance to talk about female bodies / sexuality bit plays in for both sets of women, and I think is actually a good point.

km: Yes, interesting, isn't it? I'm tempted to theorize about individualism and collectivism, but never mind.

Unmana said...

I do think that it would be easier for a married woman to talk of her abortion than for an unmarried one. I don't have much experience to guide me here, but the little I have heard suggests so.

Unmana said...

By the way, I've added you to my blogroll.

Chevalier said...

Well, for one, a majority of married women who've had abortions in India have probably had them because they've sex-selected and have aborted a female foetus. So, yes, they might not want to talk about it.

And secondly, I disagree with Falstaff and others on the presumption that abortion is always, and necessarily traumatic. It will be, if you imagine that every foetus is a living breathing human being, and won't if you believe it's still a zygote. And if you do believe the former, you're on a slippery slope, because what, then, are your grounds for denying that human being the right to life?

Anindita Sengupta said...

Falstaff: Yes, I do wish you would stop picking fights. But I'm not here to comment on that -- was more interested in the thread that Unmana started about the taboo actually being about premarital sex. The question of whether it's easier for married women -- I think it is. I know of women in my mother's generation (married women) who happily admitted to abortions (5, no less). Not in public but to family and close friends, but still. For unmarried women, I suspect it's harder.

Then, among friends who have had abortions, I know that it was easier (less shameful) when they were married and couldn't afford to have a baby rather than when it was because they were not married.

Also, remember this is a country that bans sex education in schools because it will 'corrupt' our youth. So I think at least half of the weight is because of the premarital sex issue. So if we are to start discussions, they would have to be two-pronged -- the pro-life question but also the fact that there is nothing terribly wrong with having sex outside marriage.

Coming back to the fight, I think it's harder to engage when one perceives attack. Your tone (by sheer dint of its superciliousness) is undermining. As I'm sure you realise, this would lead to defensiveness and not a keenness to engage.

Falstaff said...

unmana: As I said, I don't know enough. I do think it's an interesting question, though.

Thanks for blogrolling.

chevalier: Maybe. Frankly, I think all these discussions are a little too blind men of Hindustan. Everybody's extrapolating from the one or two cases that they know of, so it's hard to say what the empirical facts really are.

For the record, I think you're taking way too rational an approach to the 'trauma' of abortion. I don't think it's as easy as saying, well a foetus is not really human so it's fine to get rid of one. You can say that, and in theory I'd agree, but I think the majority of people are too socially conditioned to believe in the importance of babies / parenthood to think about it that logically. And I'm not saying that abortion is "always, and necessarily" traumatic, I'm saying it is so for the vast majority of people who make the choice. Not should be, notice, but is. Obviously there are exceptions. If that weren't the case then there wouldn't be an issue would there?

anindita: Oh, I agree completely that the social censure around abortions is about premarital sex - if anything, I'd say your estimate of the weight of the premarital sex being just 50% of the total is an underestimate - I'd put that number considerably higher. And obviously I think that's a ridiculous, outdated prejudice that needs to be fixed.

How much of the silence around abortions is really driven by social censure as opposed to other factors I'm still somewhat unconvinced about. I'm not denying there is an element of social censure in there, just how big a factor that is. I guess we'll just have to live with our own subjective perceptions on that one.

On the fights - my apologies. You have my word that I will never again comment on anything Ms. Manivannan posts on your blog. The rest of you may not get off so easy. :-)

Anonymous said...

@chevalier:re "abortion is always and necessarily trauamtic", i feel you are simplifying the issue a bit. The physical effects of abortion(excessive blood loss, nausea and abdominal pain(in some cases, severe) results in at least lethargy (due to severe anemia) and in many cases depression. Even in cases where the physical and mental health of the patient is normal prior to the procedure, lack of post operative care does lead to psychological effects especially in the Indian scenario (check out studies funded by the macarthur foundation and conducted by
Leela Visaria et. al. title : Abortion in India, emerging issues from qualtitative studies....I am sorry it is a pdf file and I dont know how to link it here)
Having said that, I have to acknowledge that the American Psychiatric Association does not recognise PAS (post-abortion stress syndrom). However, I feel that the two cases are different because the social issues faced by women of these two countries are different. In the US, as you say, the main issue is the issue of recognising the foetus as a living being, whereas, in India if it is not sex-based, it is taken more as a reflection on the morals of the woman involved.

@anandita: re:married women seem to have no issues talking about abortion.
i am not entierly sure that is a good thing. Their attitude leads to a certian ammount of callousness in their behaviour towards women who undergo abortion. Especially those who undergo natural abortion, they are expected to just brush it off and carry on with life. I find this a bit apathetic and hence appaling especially when it comes from health care providers (nurses and doctors) and close family. (this is ofcourse NOT a direct reflection on the women you are talkin of! and I appologise in advance if it seems so!)

@ Falstaff: sorry to hog your comment space, but as you mentioned in your footnote, i too think this is a serious issue and needs to be discussed (fights notwithstanding:)). I did not comment on the article on UV as I had not read up on the subject well enough until now and since the discussion seems to have moved on here...


Falstaff said...

SK: The point about physiological trauma following abortions is well taken. I'm not sure where you're going with the rest of the comment though. If it's true that the bulk of post-abortion trauma comes from social censure and other people's judgments about morality (as opposed to from internalized beliefs) then that strongly supports the idea that we should be fighting against that kind of social taboo, doesn't it?

On married women and abortion - I don't think Anindita is saying they have no problems talking about abortion, I think she's saying they have less problems than unmarried women. I may be wrong, but I seriously doubt that a significant proportion of people choosing abortions view it casually / callously. If that were true, then you'd be agreeing with chevalier, wouldn't you?

I'm also curious about why you think women being unconcerned about abortion is so 'appalling'. Personally, I think it would be just fine if that were true, though clearly I don't think it is.

As for hogging my comments space - be my guest. That's what it's there for.

Chevalier said...

SK, thank you for the links. But what you (and some of the studies; I haven read all of them) are saying is that there is physical discomfort from the operative procedure. And yes, there will be discomfort and pain and related psychological/physiological isses. But aren't ALL those effects greater, and even more long term in the case of a completed pregnancy? There's definitely a longer-term rest prescribed, and add nursing, that's a couple of years of 'physical discomfort' et al. Especially if the pregnancy is complicated, like a Ceasarian or whatever.
And postpartum depression is much studied, and proven, vs. post-abortion depression.

The only logical thing is to make abortion safe, legal and rare. And have inexpensive, accessible birth control. Avoiding abortion because of any/all after-effects (physical, social, mental), rather than because you really want the baby, is pretty silly reasoning.

Chevalier said...

Dear Diary,
Falstaff called my argument "TOO Rational"!

Now I've seen everything.


Chevalier said...

Sorry for the incessant commenting, but whattodo - I was looking for this link earlier and didn't find it:

"It wasn't the 'hardest decision I have ever had to make'. It was actually really, really easy.",22606,23043585-5006301,00.html

A lot of the common guilt/regret stems from Judeo-Christian beliefs that life starts at conception. To the best of my knowledge, most other religions do not have the same belief. I know Hinduism believes that the 'soul' enters the 'body' after the first trimester. If that's what one believes, then, even being irrational, whither regret?

Falstaff said...

chevalier: I'm not sure what the point of the article you link to is. Are you saying that Ford's reaction is typical? I doubt that, though I can't prove it isn't, any more than you can prove it is. Beyond that there isn't anything in there that I disagree with, though I think it's silly to mix acceptance with approval as she does. I think in general I don't understand this need people have to not be disapproved of.

Falstaff said...

chevalier: Oh, and I'm not sure what your point about physiological effects of abortion being lower than that for complicated pregnancies is either. It isn't about a relative scale, is it? That pregnancies may be more traumatic doesn't make the trauma of abortions go away.

On the whole, I'm not sure what you're arguing about at all. Yes, abortions should be legal and safe. Yes, avoiding them because you're afraid of after-effects may not be entirely rational. No one's disputed any of that - I certainly haven't. All I'm saying is that, as a descriptive fact, most women do experience abortions as traumatic and may therefore be reluctant to talk about them, and that this would largely be so even absent the threat of having your 'reputation' in society damaged if news of your having had an abortion got out. If you disagree that that's an accurate description of society as it exists today, then that's worth discussing, otherwise you're fighting strawmen.

the saint said...

Wanted to make few points-

Trust me; abortions are not emotionally vexing or perturbing experience as some are making out to be (except in some cases where it caused by certain physiological malfunction or due to disease).

Patriarchal and empowerment theory only comes when a woman wants to have an abortion while the man is not willing.

In India unmarried women don’t talk abt. abortion coz of premarital sex being a taboo, while married don’t coz of being labeled as committing feticide.

The other reason might be the parochial outlook Indians have regarding everything concerned with genitals. Be it sex or sexual problems, be it contraceptive methods or procreation, or be it disease, Indians feel embarrassed talking about it, or even seek treatment. For men perceive this as challenging their virility, while women find it against the Indian culture (and here religion factor might playing up too).

The solution is not just changing the outlook towards abortion, but whole set of issues as all of them are interconnected.

Falstaff said...

Saint: well, if abortions are not emotionally vexing or perturbing then there's no issue is there? And here we were worrying over nothing. Good of you to clear that up.

Oh, and btw, "changing the outlook towards abortion" is not a solution at all. At best it's a goal. Though not a particularly useful one. Besides, why change the outlook at all, since it's not emotionally vexing or perturbing?

Anonymous said...

@Falstaff: re my response to chevalier's comment:
Yes, we should fight against the social taboo. My comment was not intended to suggest otherwise. i was merely responding to chevalier's opinion (as percieved by me) that abortion is not necessarily traumatic, by pointing out some studies that seem to suggest that it is; not only as a direct cause of social stigma but also by direct physical consequences of the operation (even legally performed ones). As a continuation of this thread, I feel that in the latter case, the patient can be helped overcome her trauma with the help of supportive family and friends even if society at large is censorious. Which is to further emphasize the need for social change in this area.

re my response to Anandita's comment:
Ahhhh.. i realise I misunderstood her comment. Something in her comment (perhaps the mention of "older married women") lead me to believe that she meant *elderly* women who were recapping their *natural* abortion experience. I have no idea why! Possibly because that was the only scenario in which I have heard older women discuss abortion. Needless to say, I went off on a tangent! My appologies.

re calousness over abortion choice. I dont think women choosing to abort make the decision casually, generally speaking. But in India at least, it is not always the woman's choice but of the decision makers (husband/in-laws: the study I quoted before, puts the number of cases in this category at 50%).It is this latter group's casual attitude towards abortion that I find appalling. And even when it is the woman's choice, when we find that it is more often in a sex selective way, I cant help but feel abortion is treated casually by them. You dont think that is appalling?

@chevalier: falstaff beat me to it. But regarding it is silly to abort for any reason other than really wanting the baby or not. What if she aborts because she really did not want a girl baby? How is that better?


the saint said...

The point I’m trying to make is- there is no shame or guilt regarding the abortion (or it being traumatic) per se, but the problem is the reason behind the abortion.

Now can you talk about abortion and not talk about the reason why you had it?

If you can’t talk about premarital sex, contraception, rape etc. how can you talk about abortion openly? In India abortion per se is not the problem, but the reasons for which its done are…as the reasons have been censured by the society or state (in case of infanticide)

So I reiterate once more, that if you want abortion to be talked about openly certain other issues need to be discussed more overtly.

Anindita said...

Falstaff: We are forewarned then :). And thanks for clarifying re my married woman comment.

Also just wanted to say something about the trauma aspect of abortion. From what I've seen, most women do feel some sense of trauma after an abortion. However, everybody deals with trauma differently. Some like to withdraw and stay silent about it. Others want to talk about it as a process of 'making sense' or just plain catharsis. In an ideal society, the woman would have a choice.

It's a bit like when my father had cancer, he wanted to describe his symptoms in detail. Of course, we found this hard to handle but we listened all the same because that's how he needed to deal with it. So what I'm saying is it may be dangerous to assume that silence is the natural reaction to trauma.

My comments about the silence actually pertain to family and friends as well. (I was sort of including them in 'society'). Because of the immense taboo, family is usually either unaware or unwilling to discuss it. Very few women visit counselors (because in India, going for counseling is not as widely accepted as in the west). So basically, they are trapped into silence. Sometimes, it is not a silence they seek -- or even need.

Yes and sorry for the long comments (paying you back in your coin:). Maybe, I should write another post on the specific factors that make this such a difficult issue here.

Falstaff said...

anindita: Yes, but I doubt you're forearmed.

As I said in my response on UV, I agree entirely that women should be able to talk about it if they want to. This may be just my penchant for fiction, but I can't help wondering whether the problem here isn't just about revelation / making the first move. People who sympathize are reluctant to bring up the topic, though they'd be willing to talk about it if the person who had the abortion brought it up. But the person who had the abortion is afraid / unwilling to bring it up because the only person she hears from are those who aren't sympathetic / are disapproving, so that she perceives that disapproval is more widespread than it is and doesn't know who to trust. All of which suggest that what we need is a mechanism by which women who want to talk about abortions can get access to a group of people who are designated pro-choice. Hence the point about abortion support groups.

As for the reluctance of people to see counselors - now there's something you should be writing about on UV. Clearly an attitude that needs to change.

If there's one thing the comment thread here shows, it's the wide variety of perspectives on just how traumatic abortion is or isn't, how much silence there is around it, and where that silence comes from. Which suggests to me that we need to think more carefully about what exactly the taboo around abortion, such as it is, is really about. Is it about the taking of life? About premarital sex? About the reluctance to discuss sexual matters generally? About female infanticide? Perhaps even about economic insecurity (if people are having abortions because they can't afford to bring up the child, you can see why they may see that as being a failure)? If we really want to fight social disapproval, we need to understand where it comes from - not simply sweep it under the carpet in the name of respecting other people's choices.

And since when do I have a problem with long comments? :-)