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India and abortions: where do we stand?

By Arush Emmanuel Michael

“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

-Margaret Sanger

As the dust is yet to settle after the overturning of Roe v. Wade case, several questions linger demanding answers. Major among these is the question of autonomy i.e. the right to one’s own body. As we look at the world reacting to an important issue such as this, let’s look at India’s stand on abortions!

Every day millions of newspapers are distributed in the homes of the people residing in the houses of urban India. On 25th April 2021, the president gave assent to the ‘The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 2021’ and the next day all the newspapers in the country had articles covering the same as headlines. The residents of the metropolitan cities, especially the women, greeted the amendments with open arms and a sense of relief overshadowed the dark background that actually exists. The fact of the matter is that the high rate of unsafe abortions in India is actually not centered in the cities but is rather having its roots deep inside rural India.

So how does this big scary tree of unsafe abortions in India have its foundations in the deepest parts of the country? To answer this question, we first need to understand what exactly the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act was and the amendments made to it.

The original MTP act passed in 1971, allowed for abortions only up till 12 weeks of pregnancy on the advice of one doctor and till 20 weeks of pregnancy when two doctors give an opinion for abortion. The amendment now allows for abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy provided the advice for the same is given by one doctor and up till 24 weeks if two doctors advise the same for special categories of women like victims of rape. Furthermore in the new amendment, if the fetus has substantial abnormalities as decided by the medical boards in states and union territories a pregnancy may be terminated even after a period of 24 weeks beyond conception. In another welcome move, unmarried women can also terminate pregnancies within the gestational limits of the Act.

The amendment is a genuine improvement in terms of progress but unsafe abortions have always been more rampant in the lesser developed parts of the country. The lack of awareness and education produces a gap between the passing of the act and the implementation of the act. A multitude of reasons pushes a woman into using an unsafe method to abort her pregnancy. Rape is considered a fault of the oppressed in many parts of our country and when it leads to pregnancy the fingers point to the woman again. The eyes of everyone they know fill with disgust for the child-bearer when she is unmarried or through no fault of her own has ended up with a fetus in her womb. The sex education system in our country is deplorable, there are chapters for sexual reproduction in school textbooks but no child is actually educated. Walled off by her own family, the woman is forced to undergo abortions through ancient techniques involving the insertion of needles coated with herbal poisons inside the vagina in unsterile environments. These procedures can put the woman’s life in danger but equal rights have never really been a strong point for India.

Now moving to the urban scenario where the people are educated and aware, stigma related to abortion still dominates society. If a woman is to become pregnant and wishes to abort her child, the first question many healthcare providers tend to ask is consent from parents or relatives. The law requires the consent of only the woman if she is over the age of 18 however even the healthcare providers responsible for providing a safe gateway for the already psychologically distressed woman seem to be adamant in aggravating the stigma that already exists in society. Our country might have always been known as a stronghold for culture and tradition, however, when you refuse to fight the beliefs and narratives of years of oppression, development seems more like a dream than a reality.

Female infanticide has always been prevalent in India and even though there has been progress against this grave evil, the problem continues. A girl child is seen as a burden in many households of our country and once the fetus is determined as a girl the baby is aborted. Sex determination is not legal in our country but many citizens of this nation seem to always find a way for doing something wrong. Each human is born equal in this world and discrimination against anyone based on sex or any other criteria shall always be evil. Doctors and healthcare providers fail to uphold the privacy of many of their patients and under the new amendment, they shall also be held accountable in the case of breach of privacy.

Now that the problems of abortion in our country have been addressed, we need solutions. A dialogue needs to be set up between the lawmakers and those affected by the law. Women are the ones who should be deciding what the law should state and appropriate representatives need to be chosen for the same. There’s a large room for improvement when it comes to the MTP Act itself and the same needs to be tackled. The existing laws need to be implemented correctly and healthcare centers need to be regulated. People who refuse to follow the law need to be appropriately punished for the same as has not been the case in our country. The need of the hour is that all the women in our country are made aware of their rights and the laws that govern their life. Whether it be Delhi or a small village in the corner of Haryana, each and every woman should be educated. Men also need to be educated regarding the stigmas and the laws that exist in society and as a whole everyone should undergo sex education.

Abortion remains a topic where the ones talking about it are the ones who have no role in carrying the child. Laws should be made for the people who are affected by them and not for the purpose of controlling them. As the rights of women get further pronounced, the shackles to keep them subservient get tighter. These metaphors seem heart-touching but the consequences of constitutional laws are real. The people they affect are real. Though the circumstances these people come from remain brutal, they deserve the right to be taken care of by their nation-state. Our current stand on abortions, in India, remains in the favor of women; though the stigma around it is another tangent altogether! But knowing that the precedent of the US is quite influential, how long will we maintain our rationale?


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