At a recent party, the conversation veered rapidly from brandy and mulled wine to beauty and appearances. Amidst the general cheerful banter, a small group of people were discussing children with severe disabilities, especially the toll it takes on the parents. One guest happened to ask – ‘if parents had prior knowledge about a child’s mental disorder ‘before it is born’, then wouldn’t it be better to simply abort the pregnancy rather than face a lifetime of suffering?’
My first instinct was: If abortions based on children’s disability were to become common, then we tend to become very intolerant as a society.
It is estimated that 6 to 10% of children in India are born disabled. The statistics are only expected to rise.
Take a look at the statistics on this UK website.
‘1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year’
‘About 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time’
If we knew ahead of time, would we simply axe a quarter of the population, or perhaps one tenth of all children?
The above argument is, however, idealistic.
We live in a world where anything less than ‘perfect’ faces some form of social rejection (forget the fact that perfection itself is over-rated and I am yet to come across a ‘perfect’ looking person - who has not had a nose-job or boob-job, that is!). That being the case, children who have severe mental disabilities might just be far more vulnerable than others, with mental illness often being regarded as taboo.
Brace yourself and click this link to get a idea of the wide range of disabilities. They range from physical to mental, and from mild to very severe. They could be very insignificant disabilities, whereas some could greatly hinder a normal life for an innocent child!
As Indians, I believe disability is a STIGMA. This link clearly impacts our thought process. As I see it, the aspects that most influence the decision of abortion are:
1) Social stigma: Ridicule and Rejection.
As I remember it, about two to three decades ago, there was not much awareness of ‘special needs’. Take a simple example - A child wearing thick glasses or a crippled by polio child were often mercilessly teased as ‘blind’ or ‘lame’.
It gets worse as the disability is more severe. Take a child who suffers, say from ADHD. Due to sheer ignorance, the most likely reaction at school would be conferring the label ‘hyperactive’ or ‘wild’ child. Or take the case of an autistic child. The common man is quite likely to reject the child from social circles by branding him or her ‘mentally retarded’. Imagine the enormous social disadvantage.
A lot of research has gone into the spectrum of disabilities and special needs. Unfortunately though, awareness at a common level, is still not adequate. Therefore, a child with severe mental disability is likely to have a really hard time.
Is it kind to allow the child face the ‘big, bad world’?
2) Responsibility or Burden on personal resources.
We don’t quite have the concept of social protection or support in India. Unlike countries such the UK, where the state provides tremendous amount of support (carers, financial arrangements, free special needs schools, etc.) In India, health/education and social care needs are entirely the responsibility of parents and immediate family. The red flag here is: When will the primary (and perhaps, sole!) carer snap? There is a very delicate line differentiating ‘responsibility’ from ‘burden’. After all, carers are human too.
3) The great Karmic circle Guilt!
While abortion is often considered a crime, we often add the Karmic dimension to it, and make it a ‘sinful act’.
Apparently, abortion is legal in UK if the child is ‘that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’.
Abortion is legal in India too, under certain specific medical circumstances. However, the concept of ‘sin’ attached to abortion results in the feeling of guilt.
Now, the big question:
What is cruel and what is kind? Is aborting a severely disabled child cruel and heartless? Or is it simply an act of kindness to rescue a child from a life of hardship?
What do you think?
Photo credit: Reuters