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.
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.”
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.
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 It has, many times, been challenged for its outdated provisions.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.
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.
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.