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Indian Supreme Court Rules Against Forced Abortion

August 1, 2009

The Indian Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a young woman who became pregnant and didn’t want to get an abortion. Why did she need a court order for this? The young woman is mentally disabled and had been abandoned by her family. She became pregnant when she was raped by workers in a state-run facility where she was receiving care. The state then petitioned to have the pregnancy terminated against her wishes. Mahendra Palsule has full details, including the arguments made by both sides, at An Unquiet Mind.

While I realize that a paternalistic argument for forced abortion could be made by well-meaning people, I have to question the state’s motive in this. Were they really looking out for the best interests of the woman and her child-to-be, or were they trying to erase a mistake made on their watch, or at least the most visible reminder thereof? While steps can be taken to help a woman cope with the trauma of being raped, nothing can erase it entirely. More importantly, violating a woman’s bodily autonomy (whatever her mental state or ability) cannot erase an earlier violation.

And this goes to why the paternalistic argument is wrong, no matter how well-meaning its proponents.We know that rape is wrong because it violates a woman’s bodily autonomy; forcing a medical procedure on a woman is precisely the same kind of violation. Consider, too, what it means to take the right to bodily autonomy from someone based on IQ. First, without the right to control your own body, you cannot have any meaningful rights.

Second, using IQ to determine who can make meaningful decisions is highly problematic. IQ tests are not a perfect and unchanging measure. Autistic children, for example, have been shown to perform significantly better on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test than on the more popular WISC test. Even if these tests were perfectly objective, the level at which someone’s decisions are meaningful is a subjective question. How different is someone of average IQ claiming that people of below-average lacking this capacity from someone of genius-level IQ claiming that people of average IQ lack it (and thus should not have children)? Yet the latter argument would easily be recognized as elitist and probably eugenicist.

That said, it is fair to wonder what the child’s life is going to be like and how their needs will be met. The mother-to-be, after all, clearly isn’t in the best of circumstances herself. Rather than asking that her rights and her body be further violated, however, that concern should be used to demand better systems of support for both mother and child. If the state cannot provide that, then community models will have to be built.

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