Our Understanding Of Abortion Rights Needs To Be Redefined, For The Better

On The Right To Abortion And Control Over Women

Lord Rama was questioned about Sita’s ‘purity’ when they returned to Ayodhya. In response, Lord Rama decided to banish Sita from his kingdom.

Indian society, rooted in patriarchal values since time immemorial, tends to ‘grant’ what women should do and what they should not. The society, in principle, agrees on women’s rights, but only those which are ‘approved’ or ‘instructed’.

Society ends up deciding what women should wear, what they should eat and drink, what habits they should have and what life choices they should make.

Termination of pregnancy by a woman, in general, is still seen as a ‘sin’.

My reason behind highlighting these “we will decide about women” – kind of values, is a recent statement by the Centre through the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) to the Supreme Court.

It says, “Pregnant woman’s right to abort her pregnancy is not an absolute right, and the right to abortion must be balanced against the compelling State interest of protecting the mother’s health and the life of the fetus/unborn child.”

Right To Abortion And Its Perception As A ‘Sin’ 

This is not the first instance when the underlying tone of a government statement makes a blanket-decision or stigmatises, the abortion process. For example, check this animated video titled ‘Daughters are precious  by the National Health Mission Rajasthan for advocacy to prevent sex-selection based abortion.

The video is a week-wise development story narrated by a ‘fetus’ from a mother’s womb, who then becomes a ‘girl-child’ and hence, aborted later.

Though the inherent message of this video is about stopping gender discrimination, the way video is created, I think, is derogatory. In the narrative, the words used are “killing”, “murder” and the loud voices of fetus crying and seeking help. Even the visual presentation of abortion methods is stigmatising the process of abortion itself. 

Termination of pregnancy by a woman, in general, is still seen as a ‘sin’ and it does not really pay attention to ‘who seeks an abortion after 20 weeks’.

On these grounds, the center’s stance to deny women’s absolute right to abort has been a constant. In the current statement presented by the MoHFW too, the State becomes an authority that gets to decide what women should do with their bodies and their life choices. 

Right To Abortion And The Legal ‘Restrictions’

On the medico-legal front, the age-old Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, doesn’t see much progressive change. It has, many times, been challenged for its outdated provisions. Say, where a medical condition had been detected in a fetus, the cases have been filed multiple times to extend the limit of abortion to more than the existing 20-week period.

Even several field experts endorse the changes in act and demand to make the old act appropriate to match advanced science. 

Right To Abortions And Maternal Mortality

Another reasoning generally provided behind posing the restrictions, is that of maternal mortality. But, that is not really completely valid. 

The comprehensive global study by Lancet (2016) endorses that India isn’t one of those countries which have achieved the Millennium Development Goal of ending maternal mortality. But, it also throws light on how measures like health-data monitoring, expanding coverage and quality of reproductive health services, access to contraception and safe abortion to address high adolescent fertility and capacity building – are desirable to tackle the challenge of maternal deaths. Nowhere does it establish a relationship between women’s absolute right to abort as a measure to reduce maternal death. 

Our approach must shift from being the moral police to providing essential healthcare and medico-legal arrangements.

In A Nutshell

There is, no doubt, a need to solve the problem of maternal mortality and enhancing the quality of the lives of a mother and of children. But, our approach must shift from being the moral police to providing essential healthcare and medico-legal arrangements. 

Similar Posts

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below