Abortion in South Asia, 1860-1947: A medico-legal history

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In the progression of stages toward unintended lives, the two stops on either side of abortion-contraception and infanticide-have been studied extensively by historians of South Asia. We know much less about abortion, particularly during the colonial period. Drawing upon published judgments, unpublished case records, forensic toxicology reports, and treatises on Indian medical jurisprudence, this article suggests that anti-abortion law was generally enforced in colonial India only when women died as a result of illegal abortions. This approach was contrary to the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalized most abortions even when the women survived. The pattern was a continuation of the pre-IPC approach in India. This article explores possible explanations for the lax enforcement of anti-abortion law in South Asia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, considering abortion as experienced by South Asian and British women alike. It proposes as contributing factors: Challenges in detection, the social movement for the protection of Hindu widows, colonial anxieties about false allegations of abortion among South Asians, the common phenomenon of imperial (British) husbands and wives living apart, and physicians' desire to protect doctor-patient confidentiality. The article focuses on two key cases involving abortion: The Whittaker-Templeton case from Hyderabad (1896-1902) in which a British woman died following an abortion; and the Parsi matrimonial case of T. v. T. from Bombay (1927), in which a Zoroastrian woman alleged that her pharmacist husband had forced her to terminate three pregnancies by ingesting drugs.




Sharafi, M. (2021, March 1). Abortion in South Asia, 1860-1947: A medico-legal history. Modern Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X19000234

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