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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 51 New Delhi December 8, 2018

Do Women Really have a Reproductive Choice?

Sunday 9 December 2018

WOMEN’S WORLD

by Ramneet Kaur

When we refer to the concept of reproductive choice, it means women’s right, control and choice over their reproductive abilities. The right to decide whether they want to have a child or not, the control over their bodies, and the choice of refusing or accepting motherhood.

But, when we think about women’s right, control and choice over their bodies in a patriarchal country like India, these terms appear more of a question than an answer to one of the most pertaining feminist issues of reproductive rights. Whether it is about prevention of pregnancy or attaining of pregnancy, women are deprived of their right to make a choice and exercise control over their bodies. 

This is because a patriarchal society like ours functions by marking motherhood as the prime identity for women and propagates that to qualify the criteria of an ideal woman, she will have to go through reproduction; thereby it does not offer women the choice of refusing or choosing motherhood. As Jasodhara Bagchi pointed out, “motherhood is one such compelling ‘myth’ of a woman with which the system validates itself”.¹

It is the outcome of patriarchal social, cultural, oppressive compulsions that not only is repro-duction enforced upon women but reproduction resulting in birth of a son is desired. As Jasodhara Bagchi said, “motherhood appears to be a double-edged weapon”.² If women are witnessing pregnancy against their will, for the sake of having children or, to put it better, for having a son, then women’s right to safe sex and integrity of the body is violated. If a woman’s body is being penetrated against her will, for fulfilling the societal obligations of having a heir, her reproductive rights are violated.

Further, Adrienne Rich argues, “the woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected.”³ It is for the desire of a son that the woman’s body is used and even despite that, the seed is given the privilege of claiming the ownership of the child rather than the womb that gives birth. As in patriarchal culture, what matters is the seed because it is the seed which determines the lineage. In other words, in a patriarchal social structure it is the father who owes the social cultural legitimation of authority over the children, not the mother. Besides this, in cases where the aim is to avoid pregnancy, then this decision is based more on the consent of the husband, because in conservative traditional societies, whether a woman desires a child or not does not matter but whether the man of the house wants the child or not does play a significant role in regulating and controlling the bodies of women. As women are made to reproduce when their husbands desire and often asked to avoid reproduction when the husbands, and especially the in-laws’ family, have achieved the desired sex: children.

And if the couple comes to the decision of not having children, the responsibility of preventing unwanted pregnancies is put on the woman. Contraceptives like pill does empower a woman to take charge of her body but the man escaping from taking precautions, of using contraceptives like condoms, makes the situation problematic. And it is not only are women made responsible for prevention of pregnancy stating that they have many options but deciding which course of action should be taken like whether the wife will go for IUD, or sterilisation or any other way is decided on the choice of the husband even if that choice doesn’t suit the body of the woman. It is then upto the woman to take the contraceptives, even if that means losing one’s health due to the side-effects of the contraceptives. And if a woman has to be dependent upon contraceptives, which may not necessarily suit every woman, to keep herself safe from unwanted pregnancies at the cost of her health, then she is devoid of her right to safe sex and healthy life. If the decision of attaining pregnancy or preventing pregnancy it supposed to be based on the choice of the husband then where does the woman’s own choice exist?

In this way, when women are asked to reproduce for justifying their existence as complete women, the right of women to decide whether they want to have a child or not is compromised. When women are pressured to go through multiple pregnancies or made to witness abortions for the sake of and in the hope of a son, than women’s right to control over their body is violated. When all these decisions of keeping a child or aborting a child or even attaining a pregnancy is supposed to be taken at the will of the husband and in-laws, then the choice of the woman to refuse or accept motherhood is breached. And, if the justification of womanhood is based on motherhood, then where does the individuality of the woman lie? If a woman is known by the role imposed upon her by the societal cultural forces then the woman’s right of being a free and equal individual is violated. This is because the reproductive decisions are not even taken as a choice, especially for women. When repro-duction is reduced to a responsibility which a woman has to bear and fulfil, the notion of choice and right of control over one’s body becomes non-existent. As Petchesky argued, “When women’s identity and embodiment are so dissolved in kinship structures, how can the idea that ‘your body is your own’ take hold or even make sense?”

Endnotes

1. Jasodhara Bagchi, Interrogating Motherhood (New Delhi: Sage, 2017), p. 33.

2. Jasodhara Bagchi, Interrogating Motherhood (New Delhi: Sage, 2017), p. xiv.

3. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1986), p. 55.

4. Radha S. Hegde, ‘Marking Bodies, Reproducing Violence: A Feminist Reading of Female Infanticide in South India’, Violence Against Women, Vol. 5, No. 5, May 1999, pp 507-524, p. 520.

The auhor is a Ph.D student at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

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