ByÂ Chandan Wadhwa:
Abortion is a widely debatable issue which has come to fore with the recent unfortunate demise of Savita Hallappanavar due to the Ireland’s rigid abortion laws. Thus the onus of studying the fallacies of these laws is on government of each country and to make sure that such incidents are not replicated in any part of the world. In the purview of this analysis, abortion laws are subject to close scrutiny in many developed countries and the problem is more intense in the sub-continent countries. Hence I take up the case of Bangladesh and intend to closely evaluate the pros and cons of these laws. But before that a peep into the stringent penalties for breaking the laws will make the picture clearer.
Abortion law in Bangladesh is based on the Penal Code of India of 1860. The Penal Code (sections 312-316) permits abortion only for the good faith purpose of saving the life of the woman. A person who performs an illegal abortion (an abortion not performed for the good faith purpose of saving the life of the woman or by using menstrual regulation) before the woman is quick with child is subject to up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine or both penalties. If the abortion is performed after quickening has occurred, the person is subject to up to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine. A woman who performs an abortion on herself is subject to the above penalties. If an abortion is performed without the woman’s consent at any point during the pregnancy, the person performing it is subject to up to 10 years’ imprisonment and to a fine. If the abortion is performed with the woman’s consent and results in her death, the penalty is up to 10 years’ imprisonment and payment of a fine. If the woman has not consented and death results, the penalty may be increased.
Being a developing nation itself comes with a lot of baggage- of poverty, illiteracy, lack of enforcement of law and order and the story of Bangladesh is no different. These maladies in the system reduces the degrees of freedom available to the policymakers and so formulation and implementation of abortion laws in country has also hit the wall due to poor governance.
Abortion policy reforms in Bangladesh are largely overdue because a ground on which abortion is permitted is very narrow and circumscribed. Abortion is only legal when it reckons to save the life of the woman and in all the other cases- from preserving physical and mental health, incident of rape, foetal impairment or other economic and social reasons abortion is considered ill-legal. In my view, these kind of repressive abortion policies tend to create an adverse spill over effect on women who are worst affected by these laws. These regulations are implied to constrain abortion practices but this in turn will have a reciprocal effect as human nature is very hard to change overnight (in reference to the number of children). Hence this will rather increase the cases of unsafe abortions which are a significant contributor to maternal mortality rate. These are further associated with morbidity, morality and socio economic impact hence strong legal prohibitions act as a catalyst fuelling the number of women deaths.
Various studies also suggest that children born under abortion bans experience substantial socio economic adversity such as lower rates of education, poor labour market outcomes, higher incidence of mental health problems and higher dependence on health care. Benson (2005) provides a framework positing that abortion law and policy reform has maximal impact on abortion-related maternal mortality when it occurs in conjunction with other supportive programs and services. According to this framework, utilization of safe abortion services, and, ultimately, a reduction in maternal mortality, is best achieved when liberalized abortion policies are supplemented with improved availability and distribution of safe abortion services across a population. Women’s knowledge of and attitudes toward abortion, as well as confidence in obtaining services and access to contraception, can also enhance utilization of safe abortion services. The framework suggests that only when these elements coordinate with a loosening of abortion restrictions can have real impacts in unsafe abortion and abortion-related mortality be seen. Although Benson’s framework provides a theoretical foundation for the paper, this study is not intended to specifically test the components of the model.
In the sea of pessimistic abortion laws, one ray of hope is in reference to menstrual regulation (MR) which has been made available in the Government family planning programme. The Government does not feel that this service conflicts with current abortion laws as it provides menstrual regulation as a family planning method, not as an abortifacient. Menstrual regulation is available on request until eight weeks after the last menstrual period. World Health Organisation (WHO) also backed this step by the government with two key objectives in mind:
– Ensure the quality of menstrual regulation
– Share the knowledge of safe motherhood
Menstrual regulation is sometimes regarded as a cross between “foresight contraception” and “hindsight abortion.” Bangladesh has allowed menstrual regulation since the 1970s. A memo from 1979 established menstrual regulation as an “interim method of establishing non-pregnancy” for a woman at risk of being pregnant, whether or not she is actually pregnant. Officials touted the menstrual regulation initiative as a positive step to help Bangladesh achieve Millennium Development Goal 5 to reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters.
Thus in the end there are two key things which can be handpicked from the detailed analysis of Bangladesh in the foregoing analysis for improvement in the pre-existing status of abortions:
– Use of better methods of contraception
– Women empowerment
Diligent implementation of both these factors could be considered as a magical potion which will definitely help to keep a lid on the number of abortions. Many of the unwanted pregnancies are the result of contraceptive failure. Induced abortion is likely to decrease with increased and more efficient contraceptive practices. Sometimes abortion becomes threatening to a mother, especially when performed illegally. For the cases of contraceptive failure, concept of emergency contraceptive may be introduced. Women empowerment regarding their decision making on reproductive issues should be increased. Husbands should be involved in family planning and reproductive health programmes.