The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare seeks to amend India’s 45 year old abortion laws and give unmarried or single women the same reproductive rights that married women have.
In its current form, The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act denies women the right to abortion after 20 weeks of conceiving, but the proposed changes would extend that to 24 weeks. The ministry also wants to allow homoeopaths, midwives and nurses to conduct non-invasive abortions, using medication, and to permit women to terminate their pregnancy within 12 weeks, without the opinion of a doctor. The Times of India has also reported that this is an attempt to “address the social taboo attached to sexual activity of single or unmarried women.”
All of these appear to be part of a larger move towards granting women in India unhindered rights over their own bodies. In a significant move this September, the Bombay High Court said that “how [a woman] wants to deal with [her] pregnancy must be a decision she alone can make.”
But at the same time, reproductive rights around the world are facing pushback. With Donald Trump and Mike Pence now at the helm in the USA, the pro-life agenda seems to have already started with the ‘Heartbeat Bill’ in Ohio. If passed, this bill will limit access to abortion services to a mere 6 weeks. Back in October, Polish women were blindsided by the predominantly Catholic state’s proposed ban on abortion. And in Egypt, things continue to be dire, as the state strictly prohibits abortion, except in cases of life-threatening pregnancy, provided there is explicit consent of a husband.
One is tempted to be extra critical of the last of these, but the MTP in India is also largely informed by similar patriarchal morality. This is visible in how the only two ‘kinds’ of women granted abortion services in India are rape survivors, and married women for whom contraception failed. Setting these two limits also raises some questions about married women who are forced to conceive and carry to term against their will, because India still doesn’t recognize marital rape.
But even the amendments to MTP have their shortcomings. Unmarried women will have a right to abortion, but on the condition that they can prove the pregnancy was unplanned or that contraceptives failed. And the changes do not seem to suggest even a fraction of the approach that the Bombay High Court had, because they still insist on establishing that either the mother or the foetus are at risk. And finally, but unshockingly, the amended act will remain painfully cisgender in its wording and implementation, completely excluding reproductive rights for transgender or non-binary people.
While the MTP has always been regarded as having a leg-up on the USA’s historic Roe v Wade judgement, there are several issues with it that need resolving. And once the Winter Session concludes in Parliament, the ministry will send its recommendation up to the Union Cabinet. We will have to see where that leads us.