Join Us This Month For Discussions On the Law

“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy;
it is absolutely essential to it.”
Howard Zinn

Illegal, or unlawful, is used to describe something that is prohibited or not authorized by law. Which of course raises the immediate question — What is law ?

Surprisingly, it seems that Law is a term which does not have a universally accepted definition, but one definition is that law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior. Laws are made by the legislative bodies of governments and the formulations may be influenced or directed by a constitution and the citizen’s rights guaranteed therein. The law shapes policies and all the critical system of a country such as its finances, social structure, healthcare and countless others.

Within this broad umbrella there many sub-types of law which could range from civil to criminal and religious to local ‘laws’ such as those routinely created by  communities or tribes which decide on cases and mete out punishments which may have nothing to do with the official laws of the country. These almost always curtail or harm women’s human rights and often result in death of these women while the murderers are rarely punished by the criminal law of the country. Like the two young sisters who were killed for bringing ‘dishonour’ to their families by dancing in the rain. Yes you read that correctly. And then a mob killed a woman in Uttar Pradesh, India for allowing her teenage daughter to wear jeans to college. Yes, you read that correctly too. There are other stories around Asia as well. Here are some from Indonesia, India, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Laws can only dictate what a person can or cannot do within the jurisdiction of one country. In some West Malaysian states, a man can take an additional wife simply by indicating to a Shariah judge that he can provide equally for an additional wife, without having to offer any proof of his financial situation. A West Malaysian man who crosses state lines and marries an additional wife in Thailand without the permission of his first wife is subject to extremely light punishments in some states (for example, a fine of under $10 US).

Beyond the country are the International Laws and covenants that may or may not be considered to be binding on the law of the land. (In Nepal, when the Government signs up on any International agreement, it automatically becomes a law in the country.)

Now that we have this law or this document which lays what is to be done when and by whom and why and why not and what will happen if you do or do not, then one needs to not only implement but also enforce these laws ! How does a country or any system do that? Through a government’s bureaucracy, the military and police.

Law also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness, and justice. All are supposed to be equal before the law. Anatole France said in 1894, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” Writing in 350 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle declared, “The rule of law is better than the rule of any individual.” Mikhail Bakunin said: “All law has for its object to confirm and exalt into a system the exploitation of the workers by a ruling class”. Cicero said “more law, less justice”. Marxist doctrine asserts that law will not be required once the state has withered away.

What does this have to do with abortions ? Although women have had spontaneous miscarriages and induced abortions since time immemorial, most societies and religions have at some point or another attempted to create rules and laws to regulate this practice. Some countries have pro-natalist policies and the laws restrict access to abortion in order to help increase the population. This desire for increase is driven mainly by market forces (to expand the labour force) or military concerns (to expand the armed forces). These laws rarely if ever take into consideration the right of the woman to control her own body, bodily integrity, fertility while they may speak of health and safety.

Please see the World abortion laws here: Tomorrow we’ll run a blog that will analyze how the word illegal applies to abortion laws.




About Suchitra Dalvie

Suchitra Dalvie is the Coordinator for the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership and a Steering Committee Member for CommonHealth. She is a strong believer in women's rights to safe abortion and has worked in promoting the cause for over 10 years. She is also a practicing Gynecologist.
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