Pro-Choice Or Pro-Life: Here’s What The Indian Law Says About Abortion

Pro-Choice Or Pro-Life: Here’s What The Indian Law Says About Abortion

Dear reader, at 21, the white-tiled and infographic-ridden corridors of the hospital seemed as daunting as they did at 16. Adding to my nervousness on a regular visit to the gynaecologist’s office were the unmissable family planning posters and the sterile smell of soaps and cleansers. The hospital sensory experience is a mere prelude to the nerve-wracking OB-GYN experience faced by women in India; one that is not easy on the senses.

Adding to a list of regressive political moves, the Supreme court in the US overturned the Roe Vs Wade judgement this past week, effectively ruling that in certain states female citizens would no longer have the constitutional right to decide what happens to their bodies, eliminating the right to bodily autonomy that women have enjoyed since the Pivotal Judgment of 1973, which allowed women the constitutional right to choose an abortion.

The judgment is set to have far-reaching setbacks not only for American society but on the world as a whole. What does it mean when one of the most developed nations in the world reimagines a dystopian reality; one without fundamental rights to govern your own bodily politics? A little-known fact is that India and the US went pro-choice almost at the same time. Two years ahead of the Roe vs Wade verdict came the medical termination of the Pregnancy Act, 1971 in India.

As the regressive verdict in the global north makes headlines and adds to a right-leaning political polarization witnessed globally, one cannot help but evaluate what India’s abortion stance looks like currently.

The 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act in India allowed medical practitioners to carry out abortions under certain specified circumstances. The law granted immunity to doctors performing abortions in accordance with its provisions. The policy was sponsored by the government at a time when the Congress Party had a majority and was considered to be a landmark move in emancipating women’s rights by giving them the choice to have a child.

The possibility of abortion being downplayed as a reactionary law pitched as a family planning policy was denied by the party’s spokesperson. With little to no questioning, the legislation was passed without a hitch by the then parliament but the fact remains that the original policy was suggested by a family planning organization and the drafting was undertaken by family planning officials as well.

Much has changed since the century-old ruling with amendments made in 2002, 2005 and more recently in 2021. The 2021 amendment worked towards expanding the permissible limit for abortion from 20 weeks (5 months) to 24 weeks. The medical opinion of one doctor is required to terminate the pregnancy up to 20 weeks and two practitioners’ opinions are required for pregnancies between 20 and 24 weeks.

While the legislation roots for expanding the safe abortion window and touts itself for its progressive status, our data says otherwise.

A number of roadblocks face us in our advocacy for safe and accessible abortion rights. Exacerbated by the common misconception upheld by many that abortion is illegal due to a dearth in the availability of medical abortion drugs, there are numerous roadblocks facing our ‘progressive’ abortion policies.

A 2020 Foundation for Reproductive Health Services study found that only 20% of chemists across six states have them. In Punjab, that’s only one per cent of chemists while in states like Tamil Nadu and Haryana the drugs are being sold at exorbitant prices. Unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal mortality in India and close to 8 women die from causes related to unsafe abortions each day, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s State of the World Population Report 2022. Between 2007-2011, 67 per cent of abortions in India were classified as unsafe.

While there’s much talk about the seemingly progressive laws, there is a staggering 70 per cent shortfall of OB-GYNs in rural India, according to 2019-20 rural health statistics. Not to mention the judgement and slut shaming rife in a country steeped with patriarchal prejudices and a taboo mindset attached to unmarried sex.

It’s quite common for a gynaecologist to start your checkup by questioning your marital status in order to make assumptions about your sex life. The stigma around unmarried women’s sexual health is evident in hospital queues that witness more pregnant women than single unmarried patients and a lack of sexual health education that leaves our women in the dark and questioning the necessity of routine health checkups.

A quick hashtag search for #OBGYN tales reveals horrifying accounts of Indian women relaying their, at best, awkward experiences. From refusing sonograms till the parents are present to heavy moral policing laced in phrases like ‘Get married dear’ ‘Do you want to go to bed knowing you’re a murderer?’ and ‘Where’s your mother?’ paint the real picture of an Indian woman’s nightmarish experience of reproductive and sexual healthcare.

The need of the hour points toward active advocacy for sex education starting at tertiary levels and sensitization of medical practitioners who are de-facto both judge and jury when it comes to women’s bodily rights in our country. Whatever seems to be the real status of legislative policies, it’s vital to remember that the true signifier of women’s emancipation lies in the fundamental choice to choose what to do with their body.

The words of Margaret Sanger seem topical perhaps as a reminder or a timeless lesson, lest we forget.

“No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.”

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