Abortion in India: Her womb, her choice

Jun 02, 2018, 08:26 IST | Debjani Paul and Rupsa chakraborty

Last week, Ireland birthed true empowerment for women by giving them the choice of abortion. Now, the focus turns on other countries still woefully behind the times

Graphic/Uday Mohite
Graphic/Uday Mohite

Indian law needs an update
India was among the first countries in the world to legalise abortion with the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act in 1971. In the decades since, the Act has become woefully outdated.

It only allows abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. Courts have to sign off on terminations thereafter. This ceiling was put in place mainly to prevent sex-selective abortions, but medical advancements now allow parents to learn the sex of the baby as early as 10 to 12 weeks. On the other hand, many foetal abnormalities in the brain and heart can only be detected after 20 weeks. Even if the foetus is unviable, the mother is forced to carry it to term.

The law doesn’t recognise a woman’s right to choose abortion without providing a medical reason.

In 2014, the Health Ministry proposed amendments to the law, such as increasing the legal limit to 24 weeks, recognising a woman’s right to choose abortion in the first trimester, and granting the right to all women — married or single. This proposal was turned down.

Miscarriage of justice
To take down the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution banning abortion, women in the country were stirred into action by the death of Indian-origin dentist Savita Halappanavar in 2012. In the 17th week of pregnancy, Savita died of an infection after doctors did not allow her to abort her baby even though she had started to experience a miscarriage.

Arguments for and against
Pro-life campaigners
Consider abortion to be murder

Believe the unborn foetus has just as much right to life as the mother

Usually cite religion, and argue that the foetus is sacred and inviolable. Believe government has an obligation to protect the foetus

Pro-choice supporters
Believe a woman should have total control of her body

Argue the foetus attains personhood only once it is viable outside the womb

State that it’s a greater sin to bring a child into the world if it is unwanted or if it has health complications that will cause pain or death

Indignities faced by women
Longer prison sentence:
In Northern Ireland, a rape survivor seeking abortion risks a 14 years in prison, compared to 10 years for the rapist.

No pills at home:
In England, women have to make two trips to the clinic and take the pills in front of medical staff. Many experience painful bleeding and miscarriage on the way home.

Choice is not a factor:
In India, the law does not recognise a woman’s right to choose not to be a mother; she must provide a reason when asking for an abortion.

Single ladies left out:
Bizarrely, unplanned pregnancy or failure of contraceptives are only accepted as reasons for abortion for married women, as per Indian law.

Denied cancer treatment:
In 2016, Nicaraguan Franci Machado was denied chemotherapy for thyroid cancer because she was two months pregnant and the foetus could be harmed.

The benchmark
While there are many countries that do not allow abortion for any reason, such as Iraq or Malta, there are also forward-thinking nations, such as France, Germany and Sweden, that allow abortions on request.

Annual abortions in India

Yes vote in Irish referendum on abortion rights

Abortions in India that are unsafe

Number of countries where abortion is legal

No. of countries where abortion for any reason is illegal

No. of countries where abortion is provided on request

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