In Search of a designer baby

Does a woman have choice to have a disabled child asks Shampa Sengupta, a disability & gender rights activist and executive committee member, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD)?

Eighteen years ago,on a cold & rainy February morning, I gave birth to a girl under the Caesarean section. I remember coming out ofthe slumber of anaesthesia, as my doctor, a good friend, shaking me gently,said “Shampa, Shampa. Wake up, you gave birth to a beautiful girl, you must have been wanting a girl.” And I still remember, even in that half-conscious state, now why should I want a girl in particular- we just wanted a baby. As my doctor was aware of my feminist background, does that mean he can assume I wanted a girl? Is it possible for a woman to spell out her choice even to her own self about what kind of baby she wants? Given the abysmal sex ratio of our country and highly patriarchal set up of our society, we all know that women are often forced to terminate a female foetus. This happens when family members put pressure on her and society at large, gives much more value to a woman who has become mother of a male child. And we, who are the so called progressives, chide those who openly say they want a boy. But does that mean, wanting a girl can be apolitically correct choice? Because here, we are swimming against the popular tide? A question I have often asked myself, where does personal choice begin? Can choice be a personal issue, totally cut off from the socio-political background one lives in?

If choice depends on societal pressure regarding choice of gender of foetus, is it completely different when the foetus has some kind of abnormalities? Pro-choice believers and majority of feminists tell us that a woman should have the right to choose whether she wants to become a mother of a disabled child. And on this premise, is based the law of our country which makes killing of a femalefoetus punishable. The Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act permits abortion of foetus with possible abnormalities – majority of the feminists defend this act saying this should a choice left to women, as, if she becomes mother of a disabled child, she is forced to take up the care-giver role throughout her life. The question I would like to raise here is,if the social situation was different and the life-long care giving was not forced on the mother, would she even then choose to abort this child? If the whole family and particularly the state would share her concerns, take responsibilities off her shoulders, would she even then want to abort the child? With state responsibility almost zero to the disabled community is India, with few benefits thrown in here and there, does the woman particularly really have a choice – if she is asked about choice to carry her pregnancy even when it is found that the child is disabled?

Progress in technology makes this question much more complicated now. As we hear the case of a disabled boy not accepted by the family, after the surrogate mother gave birth to the baby – one wonders where we will end our search for a designer baby? United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities says disability is an evolving concept and our country, after ratifying this Convention, is all set to amend the disability law, in accordance with this definition. Now that we want to add so many more kinds of disabilities into our disability legislation, the question of medically terminating a foetus with disabilities gets a totally new dimension.

Now, this article is not against abortion – this is written with the firm belief that every woman should have the choice to abort her baby if she wants to – but here I do raise the question of choice and what exactly autonomy is. Does her choice not get restricted because of social conditioning? Or political implications exactly like when she does gender based selection of foetus or when she is choosing ability based selection of foetus?

Let’s go back to the gender debate. In 2016, when we say gender, we are not talking about the gender binary – male and female. Now we know there are quite a few possibilities in between and in our country, the other sexes are getting recognition. Albeit slowly. Now, with the advent of technology, suppose a woman comes to know that the foetus within her is intersex, what choice does she have? Should feminists say it is her independent choice, knowing very well, allthe stigma such a birth will bring to the family particularly to the mother? Does PCPNDT Act apply to such cases?

We live in a country where in our Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act we had to include insults for not producing male child as emotional abuse. We do understand the importance of being the mother of a male child but does that child have to be able-bodied too? It is the male child who carries the family lineage, so his importance is valued. In Mahabharata, when queen Satyabati was hunting for a perfect progeny to look after the kingdom, she made her daughters-in-law become pregnant so that family blood can become the future king. However, the first born after one such union, Dhritarastra was born blind – even though he was a male child, he was not perfect and not deemed fit to become king. As a result, other children were born and the Great War was one of the consequences.

Now, when we consider ourselves technologically advanced, the question is have we really moved ahead from those days? Or are we thinking along the same lines and looking forward to designer babies? When we talk about sex ratio falling and son preference syndromes, should we also not include other dimensions in our discussions? In my own family, all the adult members have pledged to donate their bodies to the local medical college after death – so lighting up of pyre by a male member is not something any of us wanted. But even then I question myself, how would I have reacted if I had given birth to a child with genital abnormalities?

Gender equality to me means inclusion of so many kinds of diversities in our lives.

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