Abortion

Purvi Patel, an Indian-born woman from Indiana, US was sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide.

Patel's account of what happened went like this. 23 weeks into pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage, and the child - a girl - was still born. Patel was bleeding profusely, got panicky, deposited the corpse in a dumpster, and rushed to hospital. And things got worse from there.

In the hospital, she told the doctors what happened. Doctors reported the incident to the police. Patel was arrested, tried for murder, and was convicted.

The prosecution's argument was this. Patel illegally induced an abortion: she had discussed with a friend about buying a pill online, ordered it (while buying it with doctor's prescription is legal, ordering it online isn't) - and possibly took it. According to the law,  doing that amounts to killing - even if the foetus survives. The prosecution also argued that the baby was still alive at birth. One of the tests it cited to establish that went like this. Drop the child's lung into water. If it sinks it had taken at least one breath, and therefore was alive after birth. Either way, Patel had no chance.

Purvi is single and got pregnant through a colleague with whom she had an affair. Even though this doesn't implicate her, my guess is it played a role in the decision.

After Patel's conviction, her supporters raised a number of issues. They questioned the method used to conclude that the baby was alive at birth. Apparently the sink test is old and has been discredited. They pointed out that there was no trace of the abortion inducing drug in the blood. It was a miscarriage of justice, they said.

What's interesting is the broader arguments that the sentence triggered. One was about how immigrants get legally harassed in the US. In fact, the only other time a woman was charged similarly, also involved another Asian woman. She tried committing suicide when she was pregnant. She survived. But the baby perished. And she was charged.

The other theme was around women's liberty. The freedom to do what a woman wants to do with her body. So, it's not antiabortion vs pro-abortion, but it is anti-abortion Vs pro-choice.  You would have noticed that pro-choice argument assumes that the foetus is not separate from mother - and therefore doesn't have a life of its own. So, there is no question of killing someone.

The anti-abortion camp questions this assumption. They ask, at what point does a fertilized egg, a collection of cells become human? It's a tough question to answer, because we actually don't know the answer.  It's a bit like bald man's paradox. Suppose a man is full of hair, losing one strand of hair is not going to make any difference. So, at what point does he actually become bald? Only, you can be half bald, but you can't have half a life.

One can of course argue that the cells get life on birth. But, it's not a good argument. First, there is some evidence - at least for those who grew up in my tradition, hearing stories about Abhimanyu and any number of folk lores; and for those who have heard stories from pregnant women and fathers to be - that the child in the womb has life. Second, even if you discount these, consider premature babies, kids who come out before their due. Should we take it that they are alive and the more developed foetus in mother's womb don't.

Another way to decide on this is whether there is a chance that the child would survive - the viability of a fertilised egg. The viability however has little to do with the child itself, and more to do with the medical facilities in a locality. It's a good information to have to find out whether a child would survive - but not to decide whether a child should survive.

Another equally dangerous territory to get into is to say forget when the fertilized egg gets life - and ask what does it mean to be human in first place. For, the premise on which we oppose abortion is that it is not right to kill an innocent human. So, what does it mean to be human? Should you be a self aware, reasoning, knowing person to be called human? Narrow definitions such as these might help you arrive at some answer - but not without raising many more questions.


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