Seventy-nine percent of those who responded to CNN IBN’s Question of the Day poll (August 4, 2008) felt that Niketa and Haresh Mehta should be allowed to abort their unborn child on account of possible “congenital heart defects”.
Would they have held the same view, I wonder, if the word “murder” had been used instead of “abortion”? Supposing the debate had broken out after the child was born — would so many people still be in favour? Exactly how soon before a birth does a “medical termination” become “murder”? How soon after? And uptil what age would such respondents believe that a parent has the right to take a child’s life, on the grounds that the family’s quality-of-life would be compromised?
The months of gestation and birth are merely nodes in a person’s life, after all. It could be argued that the condition of bearing young is always weighted against the bearers. However much love and money parents pour into nurturing a child, no power on earth can guarantee that their investment will be a good one. There will always be a certain percentage of offspring who will cause intolerable heartache to their parents. Some children die early, others develop crippling physical disabilities and yet others acquire socially undesirable traits. At which point does a flaw become fatal enough to schedule a pre-emptive blood-letting? Just how congenital does a defect have to be before a couple reaches for the medically approved equivalent of a bent coat-hanger?
The Mehtas’ problem is that they are seeking to “terminate” a child who is, by any definition, a person. The law specifies 20 weeks as the limit beyond which abortions are not acceptable unless the mother’s life is endangered. But do we really need a court’s definition to know that a beating heart is an absolute sign of life? If the Mehtas could have made their decision early in the pregnancy, their story would probably not be in the news. At 26 weeks however they are no longer privileged to destroy their child. At almost seven months, their unborn son would already have well-formed limbs, functioning sense organs and a distinct personality.
So the question is less about abortion but about the rights of parents who want to murder a child whom they believe will not be worthy of their care. We have to ask ourselves whether we want to be the kind of society that puts legislation in place to make such decisions easy to make. As we are all aware, there are plenty of folks who strangle their female newborns, who burn dowry-challenged brides, who behead children as part of black magic rites. But none of these actions have legal sanction.
I don’t know what percentage of those who participated in the CNN IBN poll were young couples on the brink of parenthood, but it seems very likely that such people would be especially sympathetic towards the Mehtas. The heightened life-expectations of urban couples combined with the loss of traditional joint families make the lives of young parents especially unenviable, whether or not they have “normal” children.
Much has been made about the drastically reduced quality-of-life awaiting the Mehtas if their child is severely impaired. But just yesterday, on e-mail, I read an astounding story complete with pictures, about a 21-year-old called Naga Naresh Karutura from Teeparru, in Andhra Pradesh. He suffered an accident in 1993 that resulted in both his legs being amputated at the hip. His parents were poor and illiterate, but they didn’t give up on him. Many small miracles later, Naga Naresh is an IIT Madras graduate with a job with Google, Bangalore. It may sound like just another web-fairytale – but there he is, sitting on a smart black wheelchair, smiling into the camera and telling us that he considers himself extremely lucky. And so he is: he has loving parents who didn’t discard him the moment they realised he would be a life-long burden upon them.
His story may be a highly exceptional one, but there are millions of less dramatic stories which share one element in common: parents who discover the meaning of unconditional love while changing nappies, mending scraped knees and spending sleepless nights waiting for a fever to break.
What are the options facing the Mehtas? They can curse their fate and seek extra-legal solutions or they can accept Mumbai’s Bishop Agnelo Garcias’ offer to take in the child if he is born with disabilities. On my part, however, I hope that the young couple will discover a third possibility: that quality-of-life can sometimes be delivered in unexpected ways. Not by getting the perfect child that every parent dreams of, but the imperfect one who helps them discover the strength and beauty of their own endurance.
The writer is an artist and playwright, she blogs at marginalien.blogspot.com