- While anti-abortion sentiments in America are driven by Christian evangelicals, religious considerations take a back seat in the Indian American community when it comes to women’s right to choose.
Over the last 40 years, abortion has frequently taken center stage in American politics — and with the recent demise of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative Federal Appeals Court Judge, to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Trump — abortion has resurfaced as a major issue in American politics. This may seem only natural for an issue that speaks to deep values and the role of women in society.
As the University of Notre Dame Law School professor, Judge Barrett had signed an ad that stated, “It’s time to put an end to the barbaric Legacy of Roe v. Wade,” and when asked why she didn’t consider it to be a “super-precedent,” she stated, “As I’m answering a lit or questions about Roe, which indicates that Roe doesn’t fall into that category.”
Thus, it would be difficult to overstate the significance of this year’s elections for the future of abortion in America. The results could eventually determine whether Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court or codified by Congress.
The 1973 judgment protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to decide whether or not to have an abortion without needless government restrictions. A historic piece of legislation, it served as a beacon of hope for women around the world. Roe v. Wade is now shaking at its roots.
While the landmark Roe v. Wade is under scrutiny, India made a monumental legislation. In late January 2020, the Union Cabinet amended the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act allowing women to seek abortions as part of reproductive rights and gender justice. The amendment also places India in the top league of countries serving women who wish to make individual choices from their perspectives and predicaments.
The amendment has raised the upper limit of MTP from 20 to 24 weeks for women including rape survivors, victims of incest, differently abled women and minors. Failure of contraception is also acknowledged and MTP is now available to “any woman or her partner” replacing the old provision for “only married woman or her husband.” The new law is forward looking, empathetic and looks at a very sensitive issue with a human face.
“India will now stand amongst nations with a highly progressive law which allows legal abortions on a broad range of therapeutic, humanitarian and social grounds. It is a milestone which will further empower women, especially those who are vulnerable and victims of rape,” Union Cabinet Minister for Textiles and Women and Child Development Smriti Irani wrote in her blog.
Journalists and pundits point to the strong role of religion in American life. Beyond religiosity and public opinion, national institutions play a crucial role. Abortion has become politically explosive in the United States.
And with the Indian Americans for Trump, the registered PAC for promoting the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, endorsing the Judge Barrett nomination, what does the issue mean for South Asians in the U.S., whereas abortion is at the margin of politics in many democracies like India and Pakistan.
Speaking to why that is, Dallas, Texas resident, Farheen Raza, host of the podcast Authentic + Unfiltered and radio host of Real Talk With Farheen on Radio Caravan and mom to three boys says, “This issue has a couple of different angles, because we are all compartmentalized human beings. Islam, like any other monotheistic religion, values life at conception. And so as for a Muslim, abortions are haraam, not allowed. So this then becomes a little conflicting for many Muslim Americans. So personally we may believe one thing, but on the outside as part of the larger society, we may believe another. So as a Muslim I don’t agree with abortion,” adding with great fervor, “but as a human being and a woman I do believe under certain circumstances (rape or when the mother’s health is at stake), a woman should have a choice. This is odd, I know…but I believe that abortion is situational.”
Senior IT consultant Chaithra Satyanarayana of Plano, Texas, who was raised by staunch Hindu parents after immigrating to the U.S. from Bangalore, India, asks, “Why should this even be a question?” adding further, “there are a myriad of issues that pro-life groups and politicians don’t talk much about like gun control, environmental issues and universal healthcare. Let’s focus on these and save tens of thousands of lives, instead of the abhorrent propaganda that is perpetuated that drags women’s rights back to the dark ages.”
Retired physician and Long Island, New York resident, Sharada Jayagopal, who believes, “prevention is better than cure,” and believes that “if pregnancy happens other than from rape or incest or there’s a medical reason, pregnancy should be carried out,” points out that “the recognition of women’s liberalization and fight for the same originated in the Western world, when the rest of the world was under colonial rule. As the fight for women’s rights continued in the Western world, the rest of the world was more focused on recovering from colonial rule. A deliberate deprivation of education to women had shut them off from the rest of the world and blinded them about their rights as human beings.”
Thus, by and large members of the South Asians diaspora in America declare themselves to be pro-choice. “Contraception is not religious taboo in India,” says Gayathri Krishan, a software engineer from Boston, adding, “I still remember the Nirodh ads on TV in India. Many Indians (those in India and here) have benefitted from the Family Planning Program in India which gave access to contraception. Personally, the rightwing rhetoric which posits women who undergo abortions as callous monsters and not feminine. One should think that there may be underlying reasons to terminate the pregnancy.”
As to the fate of Roe v. Wade with the upcoming elections, Jayagopal says, “Roe v. Wade has always been an issue in the forefront of American politics. Other issues have also taken precedence without any fore thought or proper plans. The conservatives have been ultra conservative in putting a stop to the ‘morning after’ pill, siding with employers and insurance companies in not providing coverage for birth control methods, and putting a total ban on abortions that are high risk either to the pregnant woman or the fetus. Religion and politics do not and should not ever mix. The Supreme Court has no say in religious matters, so why should the reverse hold true.”
To this, adds Satyanarayana, “Thousands of women around the world die annually due to unsafe, “illegal” abortions. Yet, we have a rise in number of U.S. states banning abortions post 6 weeks. This is beyond puritanical. Seema to me that religion takes center stage in the discussions now and the separation of state and religion is blurred. And if these discussions lead to changes in law that will be shameful.”
States activist Satya Dosapati, who is based in the U.S. and works on causes in both India and the U.S., says, “Conservative Christians think abortion is taking a life, who cannot speak for themselves. But this is used as a cover up for bigger issues that are plaguing the country — gun violence, affordable medical insurance for all, Medicare fraud etc. United States is run by the ‘American establishment’ — big industry and special interest groups like pharma, weapons manufacturers etc. have their own agendas. They want to ensure presidential candidates that suit their agendas are elected. This is where Trump comes in. Abortion is an issue for Christian Evangelists, but it is taken and blown up by those seeking to forward their agendas and while the real issues are masked. They don’t want to lose the millions of dollars they are making in tax payers’ money. Therefore, these lesser emotional issues like abortion, unisex restrooms, LGBT etc., which are not a real threat to business interests are magnified to avert attention from the real bread and butter issues that people are facing out there.”
Dosapati, who also organized the All American Rally for Trump, bringing together various ethnic communities in support of Presidential Trump, also reiterates that this is not a tactic employed by Republicans or Democrats alone. “Both parties are under the ‘establishment.’ Let there be no illusions about that. The ‘establishment’ owns the media. They tell you what to worry about and what not to, but they will never raise the issues that will affect the ‘establishment’ itself. Do you ever hear about how Medicaid will be unable to support claimants five years down the road? You will not!” he says vehemently adding “they will not run stories contrary to their interests. And if anyone goes after their interests (even President Trump) they will go after him. Abortion is agenda driven not issue driven and so takes center stage in the U.S. and not anywhere else.”
Although many American voters prefer middle-of-the-road compromises, U.S. parties are polarized and U.S. institutions will keep the pot boiling. The end of this morally charged political battle is not yet in sight.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.