Compulsory HIV testing; Violating or protecting Human rights?

On October 9th the Parliamentarians’ Forum on HIV/AIDS (PFA) declared that HIV testing will be made mandatory for all pregnant women. They said that passing HIV from mother to child was a human rights violation and that for a generation that is free from HIV, this needs to be done.

Making the test compulsory raises hopes as well as questions. On the positive side is the fact that if the HIV status of the mother is known, the delivery can be made safer for the mother, the child and the health worker. Up to 40% mothers with HIV transmit the disease to their children without being aware of having HIV. A child has a 25-45% risk of contracting HIV during delivery from its mother, which can be brought down to under 2% if adequate precautions are taken and the mother is treated.

The most important question it raises is that of a woman’s right to autonomy. This is closely linked to the fact that in spite of the male partner being the source of HIV in majority of the cases, women are the ones who have to bear the brunt of the social stigma and abuse. Even though as per guidelines, the person getting tested for HIV has absolute rights about who gets to know about the result, in practice this rarely happens. Privacy and autonomy are alien to our culture, as a result of which chances are that if you are diagnosed with HIV in a typical Indian hospital, everyone from the ward-boy to the sweeper knows the results. There is no doubt that making this test compulsory breeches the fundamental dignity of women, and makes them vulnerable to the anger of their families.

It must be kept in mind that in many states in the south, all pregnancies followed up in government hospitals are already screened for HIV and Hepatitis B under the RCH scheme. But there is a big lacuna in this scheme and that is the home deliveries. Depending on the state and region of the state anywhere from 25-50 percent of children are born in homes, with no access to a doctor. The PFA has suggested that leaders at village level be involved in ensuring they are screened. This might be a good way of reaching health care to the most interior places, but it is obvious that this is going to expose women even more to hostile forces. Unless the forum comes up with a unique way of ensuring privacy while maximizing health care cover, such a drastic move is going to adversely affect lakhs of women.

While the intentions of the PFA are good, and their science is accurate, they fall short in keeping the ground realities in mind. One of the ways they can do better is by involving grass-route level organizations that work in the HIV/AIDS field. Also, there needs to be public debate about medical issues in the country. It is sad that the media and other sources are mostly silent, and even when this is a decision that will affect millions of our countrymen, there is a pitiable lack of public interest.

In the end the decisive question is whether protecting the unborn from a preventable disease outweighs the risk of ostracism and the moral duty of respecting women’s autonomy.

From the Archives: The New East India Company

Published on The Blog Of Dysfunction on September 18 2008

Indians of any background should have reason enough to celebrate their historical or cultural association with Nagarjuna’s penetrating philosophical arguments…Maitreya’s searching questions, Carvaka’s reasoned skeptisism, Aryabhattas astronomical and mathematical departures, Kalidasa’s dazzling poetry, Sudraka’s subversive drama, Abdul fazal’s astounding scholarship.. or Ravi Shankar’s and Ali Akbar Khan’s music, without first having to check the religious background of each

Sen, Amartya,The Argumentative Indian (Penguin Books 2005), p75

Among the many good habit I am nurturing in me of late is reading books about India. This stemmed from the realization that for someone who claims to be a patriot I know pathetically little about my nation.I began with “In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce” and now am reading this delightful book.

Dr.Sen is a genius and a scholar sans comparison, yet his language is engaging and easy arguments to understand. One of the essays, from which the above quote comes from, examines the Hindutva movement very closely, and in the wake of the renewed violence against minorities in the country, this passage is particularly relevant.

The unfortunate truth is that in the name of “true Indianness” the proponents of the militant Hindutva movement (and those of other religions) are just peddling fascism, and are using the tactic the British East India company is famed to have used to rule India; “divide and rule”. Our colonial overlords were driven out amidst united slogans of “quit India”, I think it is time the same happens to intolerant and militant religious fundamentalism, be it of any religious conviction.

mażhab nahīñ sikhātā āpas meñ bair rakhnā
hindī haiñ ham, vat̤an hai hindostāñ hamārā

Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among ourselves
We are of Hind, our homeland is Hindustan.

Quit India Hate mongerers!!

Jai Hind

Schizo

Stuff I linked to from twitter last week

Unnatural Affections?

Straight To hell

The unknown and the different have always evoked strong reactions from people. Perhaps there is an evolutionary imperative in being wary of all that is alien. Of all the “strange” socio-cultural phenomenons to create waves in the past 30-40 years, nothing matches the gay rights movement in its perseverance and success. Yet, inspite of all the success of the movement across the world, there is perhaps no group so hated and misunderstood. Part of the reason is that in most cultures sex is taboo, and talking about “unnatural”sex is further taboo. Lies mis-conceptions and false information passed on from mouth to mouth end in a grossly misrepresented image or reality.This series will look at the most common  objections and misunderstandings about homosexuality.

That homosexuality is “unnatural” and against the “order of nature” is perhaps the most commonly used argument, heard the loudest and so pervasive as to be even in our constitution till this year.
What is Natural?

Any discussion about the unnatural must begin with understanding what natural is. Explanations and definitions abound and for this discussion I choose to define natural as that which adheres to natural laws.Natural laws are laws that govern what we observe in nature; eg. gravity, electromagnetism etc. but as far as we know, there is no universal law of sexuality and even if there was one, the very fact that homoxesulaity defied the law would mean it was not really a law. It’s not that I have chosen a definition to suit my views, taking any other definition, save those that have a religious origin, there is no scientific reason to call homosexuality unnatural.
Take for example the belief that only human beings have homosexual behaviour, and therefore it is a deviation from the natural norms. Contrary to this belief, there are hundreds of species of animals that exhibit homosexual behaviour. Following is a quote from a popular magazine. The science of the article is accurate, if a bit dramatic.

Giraffes have all-male orgies. So do bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, gray whales, and West Indian manatees. Japanese macaques, on the other hand, are ardent lesbians; the females enthusiastically mount each other. Bonobos, one of our closest primate relatives, are similar, except that their lesbian sexual encounters occur every two hours. Male bonobos engage in “penis fencing,” which leads, surprisingly enough, to ejaculation. They also give each other genital massages.

Click here for the original Article

The Moralistic Argument

However, often statements about the unnaturalness of homosexuality stem from religious or moralistic beliefs. Of the world’s dominant religions, all monotheistic religions have clear cut objections to homosexuality and one can find a wide range of personal beliefs about it, from believing homosexuals to be “lost souls” to “perverts going to hell”.

Most religions believe that there is a clear and fixed natural order, a guideline of how nature and people are supposed to behave. The problem with this outlook is that this presumes that religions know all there is to know about nature and its working. But if religions indeed are right about such an order why do their moralistic and natural standards change with time? Natural and unnatural vary across religions and sometimes even across sects within religions, it is unnatural for a man to be clean shaven if he is Amish and unnatural for him to sport a beard if he is a Quaker. Oral sex was deemed unnatural by all Christian sects till just a hundred years ago, yet now many an evangelical preacher is heard supporting it from posh progressive pulpits. So the natural-unnatural divide as proposed by religions is like writing in sand, with no sound and timeless principles behind them about the natural world and therefore cannot be accepted as a valid one.

Reproduction or Evolution Argument

There are many pseudo-scientific arguments hovering around the theory of evolution, usually propounded by religious groups to lend credibility to their moralistic arguments. The typical argument is that sex was evolved for reproduction and since homosexuality does not lead to reproduction, it is unnatural/wrong/evil. To begin with, it is quiet a big assumption to say that the only purpose of sex is reproduction, and if it were true, any sexual behavior that does not directly or indirectly lead to conception should also be deemed unnatural.

Such reductionist thinking does not keep in mind that the evolutionalry scientists themselves are at times not sure about the evolutionary significance of many human traits. One such example is the female orgasm, if the only purpose of sex is reproduction, then (sorry ladies) the female orgasm is rather useless. In fact for a long time it was not even accepted as normal for a woman to have an orgasm.

In conclusion, there is no good scieintific reason to think homosexuality is an abnormal deviation, or unnatural form of sexual preference. Hopefully with advances in science we will know better about the physiology, psychology and genetics involved.

The next part of this series will talk about the medical aspects of homosexuality, adressing questions like “Arent all gay people HIV positive?” And isnt homosexuality a disease?