Who thought bringing up a baby — or even bringing one into the world — was a matter so fraught with heartache, legal tangles and tasteless jokes. More so in a country acknowledged among the world’s record-holders in ill-treating its children: starving them for want of essential nutrition, enslaving them into labour and killing or giving them away at birth because they are unwanted burdens.
Nikita Mehta’s unborn child, which the Mumbai court said could not be aborted despite its damaged heart condition, has split opinion vertically down the middle on an old, thorny debate about abortion: pro-choice vs. pro-life, or when precisely does a foetus acquire “life”, and all the medical, legal and social ramifications that go with it. Then there is Manji Yamada, the Japanese baby born of an Indian womb in Jaipur, whose future also hangs in the balance, her situation made more heartrending because she is alive and kicking, but hinges on the equally thorny issue of divorce and the parameters of parenthood. And, capping the controversies, we have a seriously bad joke from the acting principal of Delhi’s snobbish St Stephen’s College, which has set the cat among the pigeons in the Groves of Academe. Asked by the college magazine about the possibility of co-ed hostels, M S Frank replied: “If that comes to pass, I’ll have to create a maternity centre alongside.”
Are these rites of passage stories or just teething troubles? They may appear Indian in their context but they are universal in the debatable worth of their arguments. (Except for the college principal’s retrograde sexist remark, which confuses co-ed hostels for co-habitation and sounds like an advert for unprotected sex.)
Many medical and legal experts believe that by international standards the Indian Termination of Pregnancy Act is liberal, allowing women a choice of abortion up to 20 weeks — on a par with the US and ahead of most European countries. In dominantly Catholic countries like Ireland or Italy, abortion is still illegal or allowed only under certain conditions — and up to 12 or 13 weeks. The conditions depend on medical diagnosis. As a result, illegal abortions are common and women often cross frontiers in search of a liberal regime; in India village quacks and illegal neighbourhood clinics are the norm. So Nikita and Haresh Mehta’s decision to seek the court’s sanction because of diagnostic delay was an honest and brave act. It could have set a legal precedent. Could the court have been more generous in its dispensation? From the judges’ viewpoint it would have set a bad example. The Mehtas tested the law and failed; but they have generated a debate which could result in redefining the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act.
Their future and that of their child won’t be easy and it must be as stressful a situation for Ikufumi Yamada, the father of the Japanese baby, whom he can claim biologically but not legally. Here, again, it is India’s proactive child adoption laws that are blocking his path. Yamada’s wife has divorced him and adoption by a single parent is much harder than by a couple. Yamada’s 70-year-old mother, who is looking after the child, is no advantage, either. Indian adoption experts believe that Indians should have precedence over foreigners in the adoption queue but that an adoptive couple’s age, compatibility and emotional stability are more important than financial security. They would rather give a child to a local bus conductor than to a rich but divorced Japanese. They have a point.
The only irony is that vocal, argumentative and liberal opinion about such matters is voiced in a country with amongst the highest number of children in distress.