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:
- The classic work among South Asianists is Ranajit Guha, “Chandra’s Death” in Guha, ed., A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986-1995 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 34-62. I read this article in grad school, and it stayed with me.
- Oral history has produced some incredible work on abortion worldwide. Two of the most impressive examples I read were:
- Barbara Baird, “I Had One Too…”: An Oral History of Abortion in South Australia before 1970 (Bedford Park, Australia: Women’s Studies Unit, Flinders University of South Australia, 1990). I now assign excerpts in my undergrad History of Forensic Science course, with a warning to students in advance as these accounts are graphic. This publication may not be easy to find, depending on where you are based. Please e-mail me if you’d like the PDF of our class excerpts: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kate Fisher, “‘Didn’t Stop to Think, I Just Didn’t Want Another One’: The Culture of Abortion in Interwar South Wales,” in Eder, Hall and Hekma, eds., Sexual Cultures in Europe: Themes in Sexuality (Manchester University Press, 1999), 213-32.
- I got to dip into some fantastic work on the history of reproduction in the Global South. Some of my favorites:
- Nicole C. Bourbonnais, Birth Control in the Decolonizing Caribbean: Reproductive Politics and Practice on Four Islands, 1930-1970 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016)
- Lynn M. Thomas, Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction and the State in Kenya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003)
- Susanne Klausen, Abortion under Apartheid: Nationalism, Sexuality and Women’s Reproductive Rights in South Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)
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: email@example.com . A volume and issue number for Modern Asian Studies should be assigned once the print version comes out later this year.