By Debanjana Choudhuri
Imagine being a woman in India, trapped in an unwanted pregnancy but clueless about your legal rights. Sadly, this is a common reality as health of women is viewed with indifference in our country. Millions of women, especially in rural India, lack access to accurate information on abortion and are oblivious to the legal status of Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP). This is a pressing issue that gravely affects the health and wellbeing of women.
Despite the legality of abortion, women’s reproductive rights are constantly besieged by regressive laws and societal stigmas. To make matters worse, many women are denied access to safe abortion services due to a lack of education and awareness on the subject. The patriarchal societal structure, which shames and stigmatizes women seeking abortion, is a significant obstacle to women’s rights. Let’s face it, the battle for abortion rights is not merely about reproductive healthcare, but also about ensuring gender equality and justice for women.
It’s a staggering fact that a whopping 15.6 million abortions were carried out in India in 2015, as highlighted in a research paper by the Guttmacher Institute. However, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s State of the World Population Report 2022 reveals that a shocking 76 percent of abortions in India between 2007-2011 were classified as unsafe. This alarming statistic is a clear indication that women in India are still resorting to unsafe abortion methods, risking their health and lives. It’s high time we ask ourselves- do abortion seekers in India truly understand their legal right to terminate a pregnancy through Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP)?
In our society, women’s role as “caregivers” is prioritized above their own health concerns. As a result, their health issues are often ignored or dismissed, leading to inadequate or delayed treatment. The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health programs have been successful in creating awareness, but sadly, this is not the case for abortion services. Women, particularly those in rural areas, remain unaware of their legal rights and access to safe abortion services and fall prey to the myths and misconceptions about abortion. It’s time to acknowledge that women’s health and wellbeing should be given priority, and we must work towards creating awareness about safe and legal abortion services across the country.
It’s a shame that the stigma and taboo attached to abortion continues to plague India, preventing many women from seeking the medical help they need. The fear of being ostracized and discriminated against by society is a significant deterrent, particularly in rural areas where traditional norms still hold sway. It’s high time we recognize that this stigma is unjust and unfounded, and we must work towards creating a more accepting and inclusive society where women are free to make choices about their own bodies.
A recent survey conducted by Foundation for Reproductive Health Services India reveals that every third woman interviewed in the study was either unsure or didn’t consider abortion as a fundamental health right. This is a worrying trend that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Moreover, Frontline Healthcare Workers, who are the first point of contact for abortion seekers, are also unfamiliar with the amendments to the MTP Act 1971, indicating a need for greater awareness and education on this subject. It’s high time we take concrete steps towards removing the stigma around abortion and ensure that women across the country have access to accurate information and safe abortion services.
It’s important to note that, the MTP Act was passed in 1971 to give women the right to terminate a pregnancy. To make it more inclusive and to ensure women’s right to choose is enforced, the Indian government passed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill in 2021. This extended the limit for abortion from 20 to 24 weeks for certain categories of women, including survivors of rape and incest, and those with foetal abnormalities. The MTP Amendment Act also changed the term ‘husband’ to ‘partner’, making abortion legal for unmarried women as well. Despite these amendments, the lack of awareness about the MTP Act remains a major challenge. So, what can be done?
Ensuring that women have the necessary knowledge and resources to make informed decisions about their reproductive health can improve their overall health and wellbeing, contributing to a healthier society. It’s hence crucial that the government, health clinics, women’s organizations and educational institutions take proactive steps to educate women about their legal rights and remove myths and misconceptions around abortion.
The Indian government can run campaigns to raise awareness about the MTP Act and its amendments through public service announcements on radio, social media and TV. Health clinics and hospitals can also provide pamphlets and other informative material for women and other abortion seekers to take home. Women organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) can carry-out workshops and seminars to educate women about their rights under the law. More importantly, schools and colleges can play a crucial role in creating awareness about comprehensive sexual education. They can include this topic in their curriculum and encourage students to discuss it in class.
The right to choose what to do with one’s body is a fundamental human right and denying it to women is a violation of their basic dignity and autonomy. There’s a need for greater advocacy and awareness around abortion as these steps are essential for protecting women’s health, empowering women, reducing stigma, reducing unsafe abortions, and upholding women’s rights at large. More importantly, a shift in societal perspectives towards abortion and overall health is also imperative. Only then can we hope to reduce the number of unsafe abortions and ensure that every pregnancy is a planned and desired one. At the end of the day, it’s not about what the law says, but what is being done to empower women to make informed decisions about their own lives and bodies.
(The author is a Gender Specialist working with Foundation for Reproductive Health Services India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the FinancialExpress.com.)