Abortion is a reality, not only in India but everywhere in the world. It’s just that its occurrence differs from country to country; sometimes behind closed doors or illegal spaces and sometimes in white medical rooms.
But, it’s time to see abortion as an essential function that needs to take place as per the need, sans judgement – as this is precisely what is lacking in our current abortion law, debates and related court cases in India. Most of the times such discussions also get smeared with pro-life and pro-choice angles which only prolongs the ‘urgent’ abortion cases. Thus, making abortion a long legal struggle for a pregnant woman or girl who might be feeling overwhelmed during this phase of her life.
It’s true that such cases differ from woman to woman, just as every woman experiences pregnancy differently according to her body needs, physique, etc. However, what is still required is the ‘choice’ in any decision pertaining to abortion. Such choices are more vital in the case of an adult woman and can be based on ‘best interests of the child’ in case of a minor girl.
Legally, an abortion is allowed in India provided that certain conditions are fulfilled under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971. This includes mandatory consultations with doctors (1 or 2) for pregnancies below 12 weeks and up to 20 weeks. Beyond 20 weeks, abortions are allowed only if continuation of such pregnancies are a risk to the mother’s life or causes grave injury to her physical or mental health and when there is the same substantial risk to the foetus – resulting in a child being born with a severe handicap (mental and physical).
Abortions are also allowed legally if the pregnancy is a result of a contraceptive failure in case of married women or when the pregnancy is a result of rape. Ultimately, it is the doctor who takes the final call on whether an abortion can be carried out or not.
While this is crucial, as an expert medical opinion should be taken before deciding on an abortion, shouldn’t the final call rest with the mother-to-be?
Today, after nearly 50 years of the MTP Act, gynaecologists, health activists, and even mothers are of the opinion that it’s time to do away with this 20 week limit for abortions. It’s not just about progressive thinking – but rightful thinking combined with the choice and the best interests of a mother-to-be.
Living in this age of technological advancement, our lives have indeed improved and been made easier especially in the case of health diagnosis and medical treatments. So naturally, the detection of foetal abnormalities has also been made easier with advanced scanning facilities in many hospitals and clinics. But, the fact that a pregnant woman cannot decide for herself on whether she wishes to continue such pregnancies is not very encouraging.
Therefore, the MTP Act doesn’t really assure a mother her rights to healthier motherhood and an independent choice. Reproductive health, childbirth and abortion should be about rights and personal decisions even when a mother’s life is not at risk. Even in cases of deliveries resulting in babies born with severe disabilities, it should be the mother or both the parents making the final call on raising the baby, as it can be an overwhelming phase for the parents.
In case of accessing abortion for a pregnancy due to rape, the decision should also be handled sensitively as per the situation, and not entirely as per a standard law to avoid loss of precious time in the courts to get a green signal for abortion. Many times, doctors have medically terminated advanced pregnancies beyond 20 weeks period.
In this case, wouldn’t it be more beneficial if all or at least exceptional abortion cases were reviewed by a team of medical experts instead of just strictly abiding by the law? Isn’t this better than spending crucial days, running from one court pillar to the other?
This move will help in reducing the number of women or families approaching unqualified practitioners to terminate pregnancies. That’s what we should be making space for – safer abortions!
I know that even today, many of us don’t stand with the ‘A-word’ because of the internalised notion that it equates to ‘sinning’ or is morally incorrect. But, what morals are we standing up for when a pregnant woman or a girl is forced or coerced to carry pregnancies to term?
So, what can be done for safer access to abortions in India?
For starters, the amendments that were proposed by the Health Ministry in 2014 for the MTP Act could be implemented rightfully, as the proposed amendments hold a potential to be a path breaker for greater bodily autonomy in reproductive health choices for women in India. Out of the few proposed changes, increasing the time limit from 20 to 24 weeks for abortion is a big step in this direction. The other suggested changes include:
However, these changes are yet to see daylight and haven’t been formally passed at the national level. Thankfully, there are other victories at smaller levels too.
Last year, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged the right to privacy of Indian citizens. Though this verdict was related to the debate on the intrusion of State into individual lives through mandatory linking of Aadhaar with various programmes, the judgment did touch upon the core heart of the privacy issue and recognised every Indian’s fundamental right to privacy as per the Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
With regard to bodily autonomy and right to privacy, the Supreme Court acknowledged that a woman’s personal choice on decisions regarding childbirth and abortion comes under this right. And, this is a contrast to the current MTP Act which does not allow a woman to abort if she simply decides not to have a child or isn’t prepared to have one.
In the end, adopting a medically sound approach is very much required as it will allow women to have safer sexual and reproductive choices and services, thereby protecting their right to privacy and get an opportunity to lead productive lives.
Today, unsafe abortions remain a major cause of maternal deaths in the world. With the International Safe Abortion Day approaching on September 28, let’s work towards inclusive abortion choices for all women, as disallowing abortions doesn’t really stop abortions but instead forces women to seek unsafe abortions through illegal methods. With positive changes and examples from India and other countries such as Irish people’s vote in repealing the 8th Amendment in historic abortion referendum and many others, here’s hoping for safer abortion environments around us.
Start today by addressing this issue in your families and communities! #safeabortion #MyBodyMyChoice