Abortion in colonial India

I recently published an article in Modern Asian Studies on abortion in colonial India (read-only version here). Since, I’ve come across more material on this topic. I’d like to share some of it here with the hope that others will continue this line of research.

British India’s state toxicologists–known as chemical examiners or chemical analysers–often commented that fatal abortion cases (when the woman died) were the domain of post-mortem examination more than toxicology lab. Nonetheless, their annual reports described many abortion cases. Anyone who wants to work on abortion should look at the short case summaries in these reports. The largest collection of chemical examiners’ reports is at the British Library (IOR/V/24). Some of these reports are also available elsewhere via Interlibrary Loans (if you’re based in North America).

Here is a sample of these cases:

  • Abortion by widows using arsenic:
    • “In a case from Chhindwara, it was reported that Musammat Bhagirathi, a widow, had become pregnant and her father-in-law wanted to secure abortion. One day she was reported to have died suddenly. Arsenic was found in the viscera.” (United Provinces & Central Provinces, 1937)
    • “A widow…became pregnant and, ‘owing to shame,’ she took some medicine which caused miscarriage. Two days after she was found dead. Arsenic was found in the viscera.” (United Provinces & Central Provinces, 1940)
  • Abortion by gunpowder: “In a case from Balaghat gunpowder was stated to have been administered in order to procure abortion…small black particles similar to those of the charcoal in country gunpowder were found.” (United Provinces & Central Provinces, 1919)
  • False pregnancy: A woman (aged 22) thought she was 4 months’ pregnant through illicit sex. She took “croton tiglium” to induce an abortion, and died. The post-mortem revealed that she was not even pregnant. “Cases of amenorrheoa, due to other causes, in women leading immoral life, are frequently mistaken by them for pregnancy, and in order to avoid scandal they try to procure abortion by indigenous poisonous drugs which usually prove fatal. Such cases are recorded almost every year.” (Bengal, 1941)
  • Suicide instead of abortion: the body of a 40-year-old Hindu woman was found hanging. “The police reported that the deceased committed suicide by hanging probably on account of illicit pregnancy.” Her viscera also contained opium. The post-mortem revealed that her “uterus contained a male fetus of about 5 or 6 months with placenta and cord attached.” (Bengal, 1933)
  • Murder instead of abortion:
    • A Muslim woman was promised in marriage to a Muslim man. Before marriage, they cohabited and she got pregnant. She was about 4-5 months’ pregnant when her parents, “to avoid disgrace,” tried to convince her “much against her intended husband’s will” to have an abortion. They failed. “To save their reputation, it is suspected” that the parents then gave her poison in food. This killed her. (Bombay, 1876-7)
    • A Brahmin widow and an unmarried girl were found to be pregnant. They were “disposed of by their relatives, arsenic being the agent employed.” (Bombay, 1899)

I also came across a detailed description of an abortion defamation case. This is a phenomenon I discuss in my MAS article: there were very few reported criminal cases on abortion falling under the Indian Penal Code ss.312-16 (abortion) or s.328 (poisoning). But there were cases on abortion from a different angle. Women and their families sometimes sued for criminal defamation (IPC ss.499-500, via private prosecution) for the allegation that a woman had undergone an abortion. These cases taught me an important lesson: when you don’t find much on a topic coming at it head-on, you may find more from the side. Here’s a case I came upon while researching snakebite deaths (from Amrita Bazaar Patrika, March 2, 1911):

A young widow Nrityomoyi Dassi had died from the effects of snakebite. A police enquiry followed when Kangali Gharai and Radha Nath stated before the Police that the young widow did not die of snakebite but in an attempt to commit criminal abortion or unnatural delivery as she had become pregnant long after her husband’s death. The Head Constable thereupon, instead of ordering the disposal of the dead body had to send the same to the hospital for “post mortem” examination, where on examination it was found that the widow had died of snakebite…

The uncle of the widow…then instituted the present case…for defamation…

The Deputy Magistrate Ajadhya Prosad convicted them under section 500, IPC after long and protracted trial and sentenced them to pay a fine of Rs.50 each.

For other primary sources on abortion, see published treatises on medical jurisprudence by authors like Chevers, Lyon, Gribble and Hehir, and Modi.

Sources: Annual Reports of the Chemical Examiner or Chemical Analyser (IOR/V/24 series, British Library) · Amrita Bazar Patrika (available online via Readex South Asian Newspapers database (by subscription), Center for Research Libraries website (US), the British Library’s Endangered Archives Program website, Heidelberg University’s CrossAsia Repository]

Further reading: Durba Mitra, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), ch.3 · Mitra Sharafi, “Abortion in South Asia, 1860-1947: A medico-legal history,” Modern Asian Studies (2020) 1-58.