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- Published 5.11.07
How personal is personal choice? In the matter of marriage or divorce, how far is the decision to live or not live with a particular partner determined by “pure” emotion or “pure” ethics, and how far is it driven by unconsciously inherited modes of thinking? The orthodoxy that marriage is “anathema” without sex is certainly an idea that was shared by the husband who wished to divorce his HIV+ wife and the local court which ruled in his favour. Worried activists have said sadly that it is the husband’s “personal” choice. The terms of the court’s ruling bring out some of the assumptions that may have coloured the gentleman’s personal choice. For example, what could have been heartening — the court associated “pleasure” rather than procreation with sex — became puzzling, since the court seems to think that an HIV+ partner would necessarily make a marriage sexless. And the man has a right not to be “deprived” of his expected pleasure. This is apart from the central assumption that sex alone prompts two people to get married.
Since a communicable disease is a ground for divorce, both the court and the husband are in the clear. Only HIV is not just any “communicable disease”, it carries with it a whole burden of terror, ignorance and moral condemnation. But how many women have been able to divorce their husbands because the men not only carry the virus but have also given it to them and their children? How many women, raped in the marital bed or out of it, have become infected? How many sharers of needles have passed it on, how many hospitals and clinics have not bothered to screen donated blood? What is inescapable about this case is that it is the woman who is HIV+, and not the man. But the history of her infection is absent. It may be that she herself does not wish to continue in marriage with a man who wishes to leave her because she is ill. But that does not make news. What does make news, and is dangerous, is the ruling that a woman with HIV can be divorced for that reason alone. While no court would possibly deny the same plea from a woman whose husband is HIV+, such pleas are likely to be rare, even if the reasons are only sociological or socio-economic. Cases of HIV demand different, deeper and more sensitive thinking. The consequences of isolating an HIV+ individual, especially for a woman, must be fully acknowledged before any decision is taken.