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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fear of the Known

How often I lost myself in wilderness reflecting on that enigmatic statement of JK: ‘fear of the known’! One such occasion was when the Mumbai High Court was hearing the pleadings of Niketa and Harish Mehta—the young couple from the suburban Bhayandar of Mumbai—who bravely sought court’s permission to abort their 25-week-old foetus that is said to have two abnormalities: one, a complete congenital heart blockage; and two, mal-positioned arteries because of which it is felt that there is a “very fair chance” of the child being born “incapacitated and handicapped to survive”. 

The counselor for the couple made a valiant plea in the court that though the MTP Act of 1971 permits abortion beyond 20 weeks when the pregnant woman’s life is at risk, but it has failed to take cognizance of the risk of congenital mental or physical disability that the new born child is likely to encounter as the pre-natal tests predicted. Hence, they pleaded for correction of the lacuna.  

The court has, however, expressed its clear disinclination to entertain the plea saying, “It is not our job to amend the laws; it is for legislators to do so. How can the court legislate? It is beyond our powers. It is difficult for us to give the direction you are asking. You should approach the legislators.”  Finally, the court did what the law permits: it dismissed the petition observing that “the legislature in its wisdom has stipulated a time bar of 20 weeks and there is no case made out for us to exercise our discretion to permit the abortion.”

Law and the dispensers of law have thus made themselves clear in no uncertain terms. But that is not the end of the trauma for Niketa and Harish. One can well understand what the court decision meant to the young couple, who are dead scared to think of nurturing a likely to be handicapped child for the rest of their life. Its upheaval will surely be as frenzied for them as the nation’s restive thoughts over it.

The whole episode makes life mock at us afresh: life is not linear but circular. Its end and beginning are, perhaps, intertwined. Its deciphering is perhaps beyond our philosophy. All this haunts the nation with a battery of questions: Are we to dominate and channel the ‘living energy’ in the interests of the bearer? The answer is perhaps, ‘yes’, or perhaps ‘no’. But, looking at the families who are already parenting disabled children and the way they dote on their child regardless of the handicap, leaving no stone unturned to fix whatever that is wrong with their child, one wonders if disability should make parents disown a child. And, at the same time, can we ignore the hell that these parents pass through daily in undertaking grueling tasks for keeping the child going, besides silently harboring a gnawing fear of what would happen to the child after they are gone. The trauma that these parents pass through can be better understood if we contrast the anxiety that the parents of a normal child pass through when their child catches a cold or cough or suffers a pain that he is not able to name except to cry till it is corrected.
Of course, that is a ‘given’. But in the case of Niketa, it is a known reality—of future—that the court has decreed her to endure. Again, one may say that is a ‘given’ to the court. Agreed, but is it the end of the road? Doctors say that today the medical technology has so advanced that it is safe to abort a foetus till the 24th week. That is indeed what the doctor representing Niketa pleaded in the case. There is yet another question that begs an answer: Does Niketa, as a mother, has any right to protect the yet unborn child from the future suffering? Or, has she no right to terminate the life of an unborn child, however arduous his/her journey is going to be?

There are no clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to these questions, for there is a lot of gray area in between. For, life is, after all, not linearly advancing…   But one thing is certain: ironically, increased knowledge is enhancing our awareness of risks and, perhaps, heightening our fears.

Let us hope that the day is not far off when our growing knowledge will afford us freedom from the ‘known’.


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