Many a time, I’ve uninhibitedly, at times vociferously, voiced my opinion in the pro-life versus pro-choice debate. When statistics, opinions, arguments fail, I go back to a classic tweet by noted science fiction writer, Patrick S. Tomlinson, which asks you to choose between saving a 5-year-old child and a 1,000 viable embryos in a fire. As expected, he never got a clear response to this question. While such discussions would be held at a very rudimentary level, whenever I’d think of several other factors, such as the woman’s age, family situation, financial means, and most importantly, her choice, I’d always rest comfortably on the pro-choice side of the debate without a second thought. Until one fine day, I googled some India stats and the bubble burst. The right to abortion in India (there is one, yes) does not remotely consider the idea of choice.
I guess we should be thankful that at least there is a framework under which women can legally, and safely, undergo abortions in India. Access to these safe and unprejudiced abortions, however, is a different ballgame altogether. The Medical Termination Of Pregnancy Act, 1971, (the MTP Act) determines abortion as permissible when the fetus is less than 20-weeks old under the following circumstances:
- Continuation of pregnancy is risky for the life of a pregnant woman or could potentially cause grave injury to her physical or mental health
- There is a substantial risk that if born, the child could be severely handicapped due to physical/mental abnormalities
- Pregnancy caused due to rape (presumably causing serious injury to the mental health of the woman)
- Pregnancy caused due to the failure of contraceptives used by a married woman or her husband (presumably causing serious injury to the mental health of the woman)
Technically, abortion is legal in India, but the definitions of the operative words, “abortion” and “legal”, are also dependent on the circumstances preceding them. Which brings us back to the key word missing from this act: choice. The law does not address abortion as a choice. It is the doctor who can take a call on whether the woman needs an abortion or not. While it is a right, it is a qualified right, not an absolute one: not one a woman can demand or request.
The law, which has been awaiting official amendment, is in need of redefinition as well. For example, the right to terminate a pregnancy in case of failure of contraception is extended to married women only, thus further stigmatizing premarital sex. The law is now warmer towards live-in relationships, but premarital sex leading to an unwanted pregnancy has no resolution. It’s baffling how the system works, but it’s not without merits. The MTP Act was formed with the aim of reducing the maternal mortality rate and illegal abortions. The presence of a law encourages awareness, though barriers to safe abortions continue to exist.
If you go to the grassroots level, you will find that unsafe and illegal abortion practices are carried out in several remote locations, and fear of being ostracised by the society or even one’s own family is a leading cause for women rushing to these illegal channels in desperation, as they come with the promise of secrecy. Globally, WHO reports a woman in a developing nation dying every eight minutes because of complications due to an unsafe abortion.
Before we are emboldened enough to talk about abortion being a choice, it’s highly important to first ensure access to safe abortion services in India. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights (to begin with) need recognition and active reinforcement, and safe abortion is a positive step in that direction. The judicial system would do well to come through with empowering legal regulations to safeguard women’s sexual health and refine, even redefine, their rights. Will the true lawmaker please stand up?