Sometime early in 1970’s at the B.R. Singh Railway Hospital in Kolkata, India, my mother lay unconscious on an operating table. That morning she was undergoing a C-Section to bring me to this world but all signs were looking ominous. For the past eight months, she had been going through a cocktail of chemo and radiotherapy sessions – with me inside her – her hair fell, her voice disappeared and it looked there was no way doctors could save both lives.
Every single sane adult around – all the doctors, all her friends and family members, including my father, strongly advised her to have an abortion, a process available on-demand in India, except in cases of possible female feticide. She steadfastly refused. That morning, as doctors were busy with her, a limp newborn body, blue in color lacking oxygen because there was no visible breathing going on, was wrapped in a white cloth and left on the floor. An ayah – a Dalit woman hired as an irregular help for little more than two plates of rice a day – saw the limp body and spent the next forty-five minutes breathing into the mouth till I started breathing. Nobody asked her!
My mom went back to the hospital hundreds of times after that for a variety of reasons, but lived for a full thirty-seven more years before passing away due to some unrelated complications. Perennially a sick child as I was, I accompanied her more often than I care to admit. Every single time we came across the ayah – by then a feeble woman who still needed work every day for a plate of rice at the end of it – my mom made me prostrate in front of her.
I never knew her name, but she is the only person in the world I ever prostrated in front of.
Fast forward to 2006. One morning in New York I was caught dancing around a room full of white and green-coated women hovering over another woman, my wife, still on a contraption. In my hands was a bundle of flesh that was writhing violently minutes ago, crying his lungs out so loudly that it drowned out every other sound. When I picked him up from under the hot light crying had stopped. As I held a lump wrapped in patterned white cloth close to my chest, a tiniest hand rose up and grabbed my pinky with an entire fist. Movements were slow, halting and unsure, missing a hold many times before one was secured.
I tiptoed with care so as not to rattle the boy, but inside, I surely jumped over the moon at that instant.
Eight months before that in 2005, my wife entered the room at our Midtown West apartment in NYC with her eyes fixed on a thermometer-like object in her hand; it said Positive. After we broke off our hug, I told her something to the effect that “Baby, it is your decision. Whatever decision you take, I will support it” and she immediately replied to the effect that “I have been waiting”. I never doubted her answer, and she never doubted my capacity to accept her decision come what may, nor did she expect anything less than me asking her explicitly – we each knew the other’s answer. Still, it was important for me to ask, and it was important for her to reply as she did. We keep wondering what it would be if we were not ready, thankfully that is all counterfactual.
Birth of our son was the best thing that happened to us, and yet, news of his arrival was shorn of drama. Each of us individually had longed to be a responsible parent ever since we can remember. Each was ready to be a single parent if needed before we met. In each of our previous relationships both were vigilant to avoid chances of pregnancy, simply because we were not ready. Through our own courtship, and even after marriage till the point we decided to become parents, each took protection because timing was not right, yet. Each knew that parenthood is the prize we were working towards, together, and we saw no virtue in it being “on the spur of the moment”, or worse, unplanned. We were, however, cognizant that it could be otherwise, despite every good intention and action.
I learned what not about parenthood from my parents. Both were raised, effectively, as orphans. My dad spent most of his growing up in an orphanage in Kolkata even if he had (very) wealthy parents before their luck ran out during Partition. My mom’s family lost everything when they relocated to Kolkata just before Bengal Famine, no thanks Churchill, and her mom died of starvation on the streets with nobody – her dad was an absent father despite living in the same one-room shack – to look after the four children who survived only physically. My parents never knew what parenthood was, because they never saw it themselves, and proved widely inadequate despite their best intentions. Sickness and unrecognized mental illnesses were our constant companion growing up, beating us up was the only entertainment mom allowed herself till we got our first television in 1988 after she thoroughly humiliated herself trying to sneak into a home to watch a soap opera.
It is easy for me to be reflexively pro-life because I was a child nobody wanted except for my mom; I was declared injurious to her health for a very good reason. But here I am, decades later leading a full life having survived two heart surgeries, a long COVID and childhood asthma that almost killed me. It is also very easy for me to argue that abortions must be available, no ifs and buts – I myself have wondered aloud, repeatedly if my mom should have aborted after all. In my own life I scrupulously avoided pregnancy of a partner, even my wife after marriage, till we were fully ready. When time came, I earnestly asked the question knowing her answer fully well, and knowing she was expecting me to ask the question. It was a formality for sure, but a most important one.
In the debate after the overturning of Roe what gets unspoken is that bringing a child to the world is the single biggest responsibility two consenting adults can have, together. I am not talking about rape or incest or where lives are in danger – those are easy decisions. Outside of that, onus is on the couples to be ready – or to hold off till they are. If we cannot postpone pleasure until we are ready for the pain and joys of parenthood, why partake in the pleasure? It is nothing but self-indulgent profligacy, and buyers must be aware.
In this debate what’s not fully addressed is the shared responsibility for both – and that means two – parents. It is too easy for one set of parents – men, mostly, in a heterosexual relationship – to shirk responsibility and walk away. Nothing can be farther from ideal. If you were man enough to seed, you must be man enough to father. At least men must be held liable to pay for sustenance of the child if the mother chooses to carry – if that requires you take an extra shift, just do it. Men, and women, in far worse economic condition that you are in, have raised children to adulthood with reasonable contentment – who are you to say no?
All of that would have been possible under the rubric of Roe v. Wade, which I’d argue was a generous one. A simple tweaking would have made men accountable, regretful even, for what they had done, while keeping the final decision entirely upon the women – it would most like have brought down instances of abortion. Even the case in front of the Supremes centered on the threshold of sustenance outside of wombs, Justices could have left the question to the states while keeping the precinct intact. Many other worthy choices could be on the table.
Supremes are supposed to go for incrementalism whenever possible. Not today. If you considered Roe v. Wade an abomination for being sweeping in its reach, how are you not being sweeping when you go for, not the band-aid, but the meat-cutter? How are you not pushing the country back by a hundred and fifty years when you only acknowledge norms and traditions that existed just after the Civil War? How are being an originalist when the framers themselves chose to cast away traditions and customs that ruled the waves for centuries? None of that makes sense to me.
Post Roe, the first thought that comes to mind is a Balkanization of these United States. One camp will continue to protect Roe, even enshrine it in the States’ Constitutions. Companies will have to choose where they want to locate as they cannot ignore half their customer base and half their employees. People are going to move because they would not risk traveling hundreds of miles to a different state, only to risk prosecution when back – even Uber drivers will be terrorized for the fear of being seen as an accessory. Urban coastal states are going to benefit as overturning Roe stalls migration of skilled people to lower cost (red) states. There will be a cottage industry of providers in shadows who will operate without supervision in banned states and risk mothers’ lives, majority of whom are low-income and otherwise hard-pressed in life. There will be scouts – coyotes – whose job will be to ferry these women to providers across the border, akin to the Underground Railroad from the era that seems to bring tears of joy to at least one Associate Justice.
I support Roe v. Wade not because I think it was perfect, far from it. But it was a good working compromise that managed to survive five decades and was granted another precedence supporting it. Within the broad framework of privacy protection, it could allow for a wide range of state-sponsored experiments, including that of Mississippi. I support Roe because it became part of this American experiment. By overturning it, and by relying on traditions and mores far back in the past, the Supremes opened a can of worms that are not easily contained. In the very least it will further polarize this country when it could least afford it.
A lot of discussion on abortion starts with “have you ever…”? Yes, I have, on both sides. Maybe life for the next kid would have been better if my mother went ahead with the abortion. Since she’d have been physically more capable, it most certainly would have been easier on my elder sister. But we turned out fine – my mother took a chance and proved lucky. I understand fully it may not be so for millions.
As a statistician by training, I know an outlier when I see it; outliers do not drive policy. A reasonable policy needed a framework where abortions can remain safe, rare and legal for the median case. Roe was that foundation upon which this American Experiment could build upon. And that is why I support Roe in spite of everything. But that’s lost today.
Sad day, indeed. May we remember where we are when we heard about it. I certainly will.