Feminists and human rights defenders around the globe breathed a collective sigh of relief on Tuesday, May 16, when a court in Haryana, India (just 70 kilometers northwest of New Delhi), decided to grant a 10-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly over the last 12 months by her stepfather an abortion, despite the fact that she was 20 weeks pregnant.
Earlier in the week, a seven-member panel of physicians reviewed the case and had denied her request to abort the fetus, saying that the girl’s physical health would not be compromised by continuing the pregnancy to term.
That means that she would have been forced to give birth to her stepfather’s child.
Under Indian law, abortions of fetuses over 20 weeks old can usually only be granted if the pregnancy poses a physical threat to the life of the mother (no mention of mental health in the edict).
After that physicians’ ruling, the girl and her mother appealed to a local court to overturn the medical board’s decision, but, it seemed unlikely that her request to terminate the pregnancy would be granted.
In the last six months, India’s Supreme Court has received nearly a dozen petitions, some from women who were raped, wanting to terminate pregnancies after 20 weeks.
In all of those previous situations, the court had referred the matter back to medical experts, which in the Haryana girl’s case, would have been the same panel of doctors who had already ruled against her.
India has a long and mucky history of not granting abortion to rape victims, regardless of the circumstances of their pregnancies.
The reason for India’s seemingly absurd and blatantly skewed policy regarding women’s reproductive rights is convoluted.
The policy, which in practice provides impunity for rapists (the 10-year-old girl’s stepfather has had no charges brought against him, although he has been detained pending an investigation) while curtailing the rights of victims, was originally instated to — wait for it — protect females.
Since giving birth to female offspring is viewed as a social stigma (as well as an economic burden due to girls’ small income contributions and costly dowry demands), the practice of gender-selective abortions has become commonplace in India, and is actually on the rise, despite government campaigns to “defend the girl child.”
Consequently, for every 1,000 males born in India each year, only 930 females are born (in most societies, the ratio for every 1,000 males is roughly 1,060 females, meaning 51 percent of non-gender-manipulated populations are female).
But in India, pre-natal sex selection and infanticide have accounted for the perinatal termination and death of more than half a million girls per year over the last 20 years, according to United Nations figures.
So, to discourage parents from having gender-based abortions, the Indian government decided to pass a law forbidding most abortions after the 20th week of gestation (when a fetus’ sex can usually be determined through ultrasounds).
But India’s restrictive reproductive laws have, in fact, backfired, and rather than protecting females, they are oppressing them.
Fortunately, there is one loophole in the current law that the court used to grant the Haryana girl’s request, overriding of the 20-week rule based on “exceptional circumstances” (the abuse of her stepfather and her tender age).
Maybe a global media spotlight on the case helped pressure the Indian court to reverse its previous track record.
And maybe, just maybe, the girl’s case will set a precedence for respecting the reproductive rights of future rape victims (according to the South Asian nation’s own government statistics, a woman is raped every 15 minutes in India).
One can only hope.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.