Abortion in South Asia

Hyderabad, where a highly publicized abortion case took place in 1896-1902

My article, “Abortion in South Asia, 1860-1947: A medico-legal history” was published online this month in Modern Asian Studies (2020) 1-58. Here is the abstract, and here is a read-only version.

I worked on this project for a long time (10+ years–it was the backburner project that would never end!). And so I wanted to share some incidental observations that came out of this research.

First, the project started with a case I came across in the Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court records of the Bombay High Court while researching my book on Parsi legal culture. In the 1927 case of T. v. T., a Parsi woman alleged that her pharmacist husband had forced her to terminate three pregnancies by ingesting drugs. The testimony was detailed and graphic. Descriptions of abortion in the colonial archive are rare, and I was so amazed when I stumbled on this that I decided that I’d have to do a separate project on abortion. I thought long and hard about whether to reproduce these descriptions at length in my article. I have included two pages of excerpts (see Appendix E at pp.55-56), because it is so hard to gain access to these materials at the Bombay High Court. I wanted to make Mrs. T.’s own words, and not just my summary, available to others. I did not include the names of the parties for the sake of descendants in a tight-knit community.

Some surprising things that came out of this research:

  • There are very few reported cases about abortion in the published law reports for colonial India. However, there are a number of defamation cases about abortion (A sued B for reputational harm after B accused A of having an abortion). I did not expect this. Sometimes you find more when you come at your topic from the side than from the front.
  • In discussions about the drafting and enforcement of the Indian Penal Code’s anti-abortion provisions, the role of Hindu widows and Hindu widow remarriage legislation ended up being very important. I did not expect this, either.
  • The Hippocratic Oath includes an anti-abortion provision (for two translations, see footnote 143 at p.43).
  • The Catholic church (through Pope Pius IX) only declared that life (or ensoulment) begins at conception, not quickening, in 1869–not earlier (see footnote 47 at p.15).
  • My article is a prequel to the better-known history of sex-selective abortion in post-colonial India. But there was sex-selection abortion even before the invention of technologies like ultrasound. Astrologers predicted the sex of the fetus, for instance, probably leading to some terminations. At the same time, there was a popular belief that certain medicines and charms could change the sex of of the fetus in utero, which may have prevented some abortions (see pp.7-8).
  • In the USSR, women could get medically supervised, legal abortions during the first trimester from as early as 1920. A legislator named B. V. Jadhav proposed a bill to decriminalize abortion in India in 1933. The bill failed in part because critics drew parallels with the Soviet Union (see pp.45-46).
  • A young Winston Churchill probably met many of the people involved in the Hyderabad abortion case featured in my article. He visited Secunderabad in November 1896–a month before Edith Whittaker died of abortion-related complications–and fell for Pamela Plowden, the daughter of the British Resident, Trevor Chichele John Plowden. Pamela Plowden rejected Winston Churchill, who may have proposed marriage. Some of her father’s official correspondence involving Patrick Hehir (a key figure in this case) appears in my footnotes.

Some of my favorite readings:

Finally, a research idea for future scholars: I am now coming across a ton of cases on abortion in the annual reports of the Chemical Examiners (available at the British Library and elsewhere, in fragments). There is a project here, using the short case descriptions that were usually present in these remarkable regional annual reports. However, be warned that there are usually only one or two  sentences per case. My article focuses on two cases with very rich records (the Hyderabad case files are voluminous, which is a big reason why I spent 10+ years on this project!). A project on abortion in the CE reports would be the opposite: you’ll have many cases, but with only a little bit of information on each case. Still, this is a project worth doing. I hope someone tackles it.

Please e-mail me if you’d like the full article: mitra.sharafi@wisc.edu . A volume and issue number for Modern Asian Studies should be assigned once the print version comes out later this year.