December 29, 2016

Memories of Collecting and Conserving Butterflies

Peter Marren's Rainbow Dust about British butterflies in which he notes that 'the same kinds of people who collected butterflies two or three generations ago became equally ardent conservationists', reminded me of my own days collecting butterflies and rearing caterpillars. As Marren says:
"The smell of naphthalene, otherwise known, with a certain irony, as mothballs, still brings back memories of those distant days, just as a tea-soaked madeleine cake ignited that ‘vast structure of recollection’ for Marcel Proust. It’s the smell of a lost world, of home museums, of a time when one’s excitement at discovering the natural world was just beginning. Everything about nature was fresh and wonderful , and a well-stocked naturalist’s den was the most worthwhile thing in the world."
Cover of 'Common Butterflies of India'
My introduction to butterflies (and nature more generally complete with the 'home museum' Marren refers to) came from Thomas Gay Waterfield, affectionately called Dada, of whom I'd written a few days after his death in 2001:
"...the only thing that stands out in my mind of that first meeting is a large bowl of water and some chhapatis on his windowsill, kept there for birds. That Dada was an ardent nature lover was the first in a long series of things I was to learn of him. In those years, he often took me for nature walks where he taught me one of the most important things I've ever learnt: to take time off to appreciate the wonders of nature which surround us all the time but which we often fail even to notice. He was deeply interested in wildlife and [co-]wrote a book about Indian butterflies.

Dada also tried to do everything possible to eradicate the superstition that surrounds animals like snakes. I remember an incident he once narrated where he described how he convinced villagers in some small peripheral village in Maharashtra that the green tree snake does not kill people by landing on their heads from tree tops. In fact, it cannot do so: it's head is soft and feels a lot like rubber."

He'd been an officer of the Raj who stayed behind in India after Independence, and who brought up several Indian children. A friend once told me that they broke the mould after they made Dada; I'm inclined to agree.

September 22, 2016

Concerns: The Expansion of Abortion Rights

The decision of the Bombay High Court in the case of High Court On Its Own Motion vs The State Of Maharashtra decided on 19 September, 2016, has been widely spoken of as a progressive decision, and in many ways it is although it does also leave some questions unanswered.

Para14. reads: "A woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy is not a frivolous one. Abortion is often the only way out of a very difficult situation for a woman. An abortion is a carefully considered decision taken by a woman who fears that the welfare of the child she already has, and of other members of the household that [sic] she is obliged to care for with limited financial and other resources, may be compromised by the birth of another child. These are decisions taken by responsible women who have few other options. They are women who would ideally have preferred to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, but were unable to do so. If a woman does not want to continue with the pregnancy, then forcing her to do so represents a violation of the woman's bodily integrity and aggravates her mental trauma which would be deleterious to her mental health."

The recognition of a woman's right to make decisions about her own body and whether or not to have a child is, of course, progressive. What isn't entirely clear is why, despite this recognition, the Court itself seems to have effectively differentiated between women. It states, in Paras. 12 and 13: "As per Explanation 2, if the pregnancy is accidental on account of failure of device or method used by married woman or her husband for the purpose of limiting the number of children, then the said pregnancy if unwanted, it may be presumed to constitute grave injury to mental health of the pregnant woman. [....] We need to interpret Explanation 2 which is restricted only to a married couple. However, today a man and a woman who are in live-in-relationship, cannot be covered under Explanation 2 whereas Explanation 2 should be read to mean any couple living together like a married couple."

The Court has clearly read "married women" in Explanation 2 to include women who are in live-in relationships. Perhaps the wording of the law prevented an even more expansive reading in the Court's eyes but this hasn't been made clear in the decision, and the question of whether the Court's expansive interpretation of who would fall under the provision related to "married women" remains although it appears that the expansive interpretation adopted by the Court is limited to women in live-in relationships even though the Court, immediately after articulating its reading states: "A woman irrespective of her marital status can be pregnant either by choice or it can be an unwanted pregnancy."

As such, the expansive reading by the Court sets up two categories of unmarried women on the basis of their domestic arrangements: those in live-in relationships on one hand, and, on the other hand, those who are not in live-in relationships whether or not they are in relationships at all. It isn't entirely clear why this has been done, and whether the differentiation between various kinds of unmarried women based on their domestic arrangements can be considered to be fair and constitutional especially given that it potentially accords diminished access to abortion to unmarried women who are not in live-in relationships.

Strangely, the decision clearly intends to accord the same abortion rights to all women but still differentiates between women itself. It states, in Para. 16: "Women in different situations have to go for termination of pregnancy. She may be a working woman or homemaker or she may be a prisoner, however, they all form one common category that they are pregnant women. They all have the same rights in relation to termination of pregnancy."

What is troubling is that the decision of the Court appears to hinge on the rights which should be granted to women viewed through, one might suspect, a patriarchal lens. There appears to be no conception of women who may become pregnant without being in a committed relationship and without being raped, and the Court voices an age-old conception of the devastating effect of rape stating, without explaining what the basis of the statement is, in Para. 12: "If pregnancy is due to rape, then there is bound to be complete mental break down of a victim." What a woman could be subject to by law on account of a 'complete mental break down' which is simply assumed to exist by the Court, if the assumption were to be carried over to other contexts such as to determine a woman's competence to contract, doesn't bear thinking. Further, it is also unclear if reading marital relationships to include live-in relationships is an interpretation susceptible to being applied in other contexts (potentially generally making, for example, the rape of one's live-in partner non-criminal through a similar expansive reading being made applicable to the marital rape exemption in the Penal Code).

As such, the decision of the High Court takes abortion law several steps forward when it is considered in broad strokes. However, the devil, as they say, is in the details, and it appears that the decision has the potential to have unpleasant and unintended consequences for some women, and possibly not just women in prison in relation to whom the decision has been drafted.