Author: Ranjani K. Murthy, October 22 2015 - The world is divided around the issue of abortion. It is time we revisited what is choice.

Adapting Rowland’s framework on power (see reference link below), one needs to distinguish between the need for abortion when power is exercised over women and girls by men and boys and when women/girls exercise power to make decisions about their bodies based on critical consciousness. When power is exercised over women/girls by men/boys like rape they surely have a right to abortion. 

The process of women's or girls' empowerment "at power to" (individual) level involves fostering changes so that individually women/girls can exercise greater power to shape their lives. Surely, a woman who is deserted by her husband or partner or a woman who discovers that her husband or partner is having an affair should have a right to abortion. So is the case when a woman loses her partner or husband in a disaster or conflict. A woman or a girl whose life will be at risk if she goes through her pregnancy should have a right to abortion. 

If contraception was not made accessible by the government, and a pregnant woman seeks  abortion on social and economic grounds, it should be available to her.   Adolescent pregnancy itself carries many risks, and adolescent girls should have a right to abortion, period.  At the same time, one must recognize that it is risky for highly anaemic women/girls to undergo abortion beyond prescribed duration and that some methods may be unsafe for them.  

But should a woman who 'chooses' to abort her female fetus because she is pressured by her husband or in-laws or she herself wants a male child be allowed to abort? In my opinion, no, as the decision is not borne out of a critical consciousness or  strategic agency. Sex selective abortion of females is the ultimate form of injustice to women and girls. Women's collective voice (what Rowlands calls 'power with') and strategic voice (what Rowland calls 'power within') need to be heard .

Collectively, economically poor women in India are clear about consequences of decline in sex ratio at birth - that dowry will not come down but sexual violence will increase, trafficking of girls and women will increase, purchase and sale of girls will increase, etc. In a country where honor killing is on the rise when people marry outside their caste, women are clear that the market cannot settle caste hierarchies.& Further, poor women are clear that agriculture will be affected, affecting food security and, therefore, have impact on women and girls more than men. They are concerned about inter-generational sustainability of the human race. In China, the economy itself is being affected, with boys saving to woo girls, who are in short supply. Hence, one needs to:

  • strengthen women's control over resources;
  • change patriarchal values; and
  • implement legislation on sex selection. The last seems like a population control agenda, pushed by western donors in the context of concern over climate change.  For example, it is a combination of strict implementation of legislation and addressing root causes of son preference that has improved situation in Republic of Korea!

To sum up, it is when women exercise power within themselves which stems from a growing analysis and awareness of the roots of their subordination and a self confidence that this can be tackled via collective/political action that it can be considered choice. When women exercise power within, they do not choose sex-selective abortion of females or sex balancing of one male and one female, but resist the same. After all one wants a society where being a male/boy or female/girl should not make a difference. Overall, the pro-life and pro-choice debate is a narrow one in the context of son preference in half of the world including India, China, Republic of Korea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, etc.
Rowlands, J. (1997) Questioning Empowerment: Working with Women in Honduras. Oxford, UK: Oxfam