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It was a wintry school day and we, the students of Class XII B, were walking in single file, towards a room designated for yoga classes. A special film was about to be screened in the room and it had been readied for that purpose - the curtains were tightly drawn and a projector stood purposefully in a corner.
There was much mirth amongst the rows of schoolgirls who poured into the room. Apart from the novelty of watching a film over a double period of Maths, there were whispers that, in this, a convent school, the film was about a certain three-letter word that began with S and ended with X. Part of a curriculum that was politely described as 'Health Education', it was meant to prepare us for Life.
As the projector beamed the film, the shaky images steadied themselves to tell the tale of a twelve-week-old fetus as it underwent an abortion. The film used a series of still ultrasound images to unravel the abortive process with chilling accuracy. An obstetrician sat by a television screen, pointing out steel instruments invading the womb. He described the suction cannula as a "lethal weapon" that will "dismember, crush and destroy" the fetus (consistently referred to as "the child" ). The grainy fetal images finally revealed a tiny mouth that opened in horror and let out a "silent scream. "
The film, and the Q and A session that followed, were a well-intended gesture for us from our Catholic school worried about the sexual destinies of its graduating class. The congregation of nuns who ran the school hoped our choices would always be pro-life. Their vision was limited by the innocence of the era and unable to foresee the dilemmas we would face, as the world turned and we came of age.
Because no self-righteous educational film could possibly account for the death of Savita Halappanavar who was seventeen weeks pregnant and denied an abortion in mostly Catholic Ireland. The religious-medical-legal-moral confluence of her demise has brought to fore the status of zygotes, embryos and fetuses. Are they full persons with human rights? Do they have moral value? Under what circumstances is it ethically permissible for an individual to seek or assist in an abortion?
The massive furore over Halappanavar's death has compelled Ireland to tweak its anti-abortion policy and allow a termination of pregnancy once doctors determine that the mother's life is at risk. But the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to abortion is a firm decree that stems from the conviction that a new person exists from the first moment of conception. While theologians argue that the existence of the soul is probable at the time of conception, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, proclaimed in 1975 that human biological life has value and must be protected, whether it has a spiritual soul or not.
A papal encyclical, The Gospel of Life: (Evangelium Vitae) states that "abortion is a direct violation of the fundamental right to life of the human being. "
This belief has found resonance in public policies that protect biological life from fertilisation onwards. In 1983, The Right to Life of the Unborn Amendment was passed in Ireland. Germany assigned fetuses constitutional rights in 1993. In the United States, pro-life activists have succeeded in passing the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which establishes separate penalties for individuals who knowingly or unknowingly harm an "unborn child" in the course of committing any of the over 60 listed federal crimes.
But despite the outrage of anti-abortionists, fanned by Church teachers, there are those who have braved moral censure and fought for the freedom of women (and girls) to choose whether to continue or terminate their pregnancies. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights of Women in Africa (African Union, 2003) is perhaps the first document to call on member states to protect women's reproductive rights by authorising abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, fetal impairment, and where continuing the pregnancy would endanger the life of the woman. In the mid-1990 s, conferences sponsored by the United Nations, like the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, as well as the Declaration of the Elimination of Violence against Women, affirmed the ideas of sexual and reproductive rights.
In India, abortion laws fall under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MPT) Act. Only qualified doctors can perform abortions in an approved clinic or hospital. However, the 'pro-life-pro-choice ' debate is tainted with the country's regressive practice of sex-selective abortions, borne of a widespread preference for the male child. Given the popularity of the unqualified midwife, the mushrooming of pigeon-hole "clinics" and the rampant promotion of "Abortion by Tablets" on flimsy cardboard signboards, the freedom to terminate a pregnancy is sometimes abused as a convenient way of getting rid of a female fetus.
While there is no surgical solution to the abortion issue that can cut away from moral ambiguity or medical irresponsibility, one thing must be agreed upon by lawmakers and religious keepers - the process of bringing a child into the world should also bring joy to both mother and her newborn.
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