Abortion in Colonial India, c. 1860-1933

Banerjee, Rashmi, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Nair, Neeti, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia

This paper looks into the act of 'criminal abortion' in colonial India and the complex legal and social attitudes towards it. Unlike infanticide, the issue of abortion has only recently entered the scholarship on gender and law in South Asian history. These works show that despite stringent and uniform criminalizing laws against abortion, women were rarely prosecuted due to several moral and logistical factors. While I agree with the prevailing view, I argue that the colonial administration sought to tackle the problem of abortion through legal and medical reforms for the upliftment of women. The assumption behind such steps was the colonial notion that women in India were victims of vicious patriarchal structures, which compelled them to commit criminal acts such as abortion in a society that demanded unreasonable domestic and sexual discipline. This essay not only addresses the tension between the intense colonial concern for 'criminal abortion' and the reluctance to prosecute the 'pitiable native woman' but also provides a new approach to viewing the socio-legal reforms that were introduced in the colony in the late 19th and early 20th century. Finally, it seeks to situate India in the imperial debates around female criminality during this period.

MA (Master of Arts)
abortion, female criminality, British colonial law, reproductive politics
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