New Delhi: The Mehtas’ fight to abort their 26-week-old foetus has finally ended with the couple now deciding not to appeal their case in the Supreme Court. The Bombay High Court turned down their plea saying that allowing the abortion of a foetus older than 20 weeks is illegal.
Meanwhile, J J Hospital in Mumbai also confirmed that a typing error led the hospital to underemphasise the potential disability of Niketa Mehta's unborn child. It was on the basis of this report that the court refused permission to abort the child.
Niketa Mehta, a tuition teacher, and her husband Haresh Mehta, a stockbroker, feel they cannot afford to care for an ailing child. They are also concerned about who will take care of the child once they are gone.
That is the question that was debated on Face The Nation: The Mehta abortion case - is disability a burden in India?
On the panel to discuss the issue were National President of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Ajay Kumar, Director of Action for Autism, Mary Barua, Business Standard's Senior Assistant Editor, Archana Jahagirdar and CEO of SCORE foundation George Abraham.
With the Mehta couple in Mumbai having been refused permission to abort their possibly disabled child shifts the focus to how the Indian society views the disabled.
A mother's plea
On the basis of the mother's plea does it not make sense that she wants to terminate the pregnancy?
Mary Barua said, "When we try and understand where the mother is coming from, she is a mother who is concerned about having an ailing child and what their future and the child’s future is going to be like. But unfortunately in India there is no proper counselling for a situation like this."
"Coming to the point of what will happen to the child when the mother is no more. Rather than saying that there are no services available, so lets get rid of this child, may be what they want to do is get services created so that tomorrow if someone has a disable child the state is forced to take measures to put services in place. In fact this case could be used as a catalyst," she added.
Discrimination against the disabled
Are the disabled completely segregated in the Indian society?
Being a caregiver for her ailing parents Archana Jhagirdar replied, "It’s a bit simplistic to say that we should ask for services. This country treats people with disabilities in a way that they don’t exist and they shouldn’t have a normal life."
"An example being when I take my father to AIIMS which supposedly the premier institution in India for medical sciences, it’s a nightmare as there is no facility for him, no wheelchairs available. So I don’t blame this mother for wanting to terminate the pregnancy," she added.
George Abraham is of the view that the Indian mindsets are completely biased against the disabled.
"Society has always viewed the disabled as lesser beings. And the reason for this view is because of the way this world and the way we have designed our facilities and services. We do not take into the account all that endues us," he said.
"People with disabilities are as much part of this environment as anyone else and if a mall, a park, a restaurant is build - a disabled person is likely to be in these places as much as anybody else. And therefore when the planners and the designers come down to developing the services of the country they need to keep every single person in mind," he added.
Right to live
Dr Ajay Kumar welcomed the court’s decision and felt that the abortion should not be allowed to take place. The panellists also believed that India as a country is not tolerant towards disabled or special people.
"Let’s discuss this in a wider issue. Disability can be of three types, one being physical disability, one being disability because of no education and the last disability due to poverty. So what are we going to do in this country? Are we going to get all these three types of disabled people eliminated from this world or should we care for them?" Kumar demanded.
"What will be the difference between a jungle and a civilized society? Though it’s true that in India we don’t have the facilities such as in developed countries, but we do have the determination as we are going up. We are talking of India developing enough to be a developed country so the care towards the disabled will improve," he added.
Replying to Dr Ajay Kumar, Archana Jahagir said, "The points which I would like stress upon is, that even with our developing country and posh suburbs coming up there are lesser facilities for people with any disabilities. So this whole discussion about developing and going into a developed world paradigm is not happening."
"The town planners, architects and whoever is building these suburbs has not looked into the needs of the disabled, there aren’t any facilities for them," she added.
A hostile environment
So we are not a humane society and need aggressively normal people? And should the parents be forced to give birth to a child they can't afford caring for?
Geore Abraham answered, "I feel that to most Indians disability stops with cure and treatment by the doctor. It’s a medical but a very ancient model and hence 90 per cent of the people had voted yes, that disable people are a burden."
Abraham added that there are millions of children in world who are disabled and are living difficult lives.
“I do sympathise with the parents because it’s a difficult task to bring up a disabled child. However, suicide or murder or killing is not the answer to the problem. One needs to face the problem and I feel this case has helped us focus on our attitude towards the disabled. So one can call terminating this pregnancy an act of murder," he added.
Towing a similar line, Mary Barua said, "As much as I sympathise with the couple, terminating the pregnancy is not the answer as then what they are suggesting that a person with a disability does not have a worthwhile life. And to make an exception in this particular case is suggesting that if your child is disabled or if you think you may have disabled child, you can terminate the pregnancy, as then the life is not worthwhile.”
"And talking about the developing posh cities, and the reason those places are made the way they are is the reason why we are getting the 90 per cent votes, saying disability is a burden because this is the mindset that needs to be changed," she pointed out.
A time to change
The experts discussed the changes the society has to undertake to get the disabled into the mainstream in India.
"Those in the society like ours should be trying to change the mindset. Also the whole case has not been put in the right perspective to the people. As they should have been told that in the 24 weeks of pregnancy when the foetus is taken out of the womb, it is a live breathing foetus. So at that point are we going to deny any treatment to the foetus and let it die?" questioned Dr Kumar.
"And that is the question that should be asked to the people rather than asking if the pregnancy should be terminated? As these questions are for the earlier period of the pregnancy. But at 25th and 26th week it won’t be a foetus but in fact a baby and a baby that will be a living child," he said.
As the debate gathered steam, the panellists questioned if the baby should die only because the society has no place for it.
"There is a huge difference in the West and here in the way the disabled are treated. They have opportunities and their work is appreciated," said Jahgir.
Concluding the debate Abraham said, "As a person living with a defect I would like say that what needs to be done is that the way we are dealing with disability in this country is that we have just a niche dealing with it, which is the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. And people with disabilities are a part and citizens of this country and hence the entire Government stating from the PM has to recognise the disabled people as the citizens of this country just like anybody else.”
Final results of the SMS poll - The Mehta abortion case: Is disability a burden in India?
Yes: 91 per cent
No: 9 per cent