While it has become a cliché to say that Covid-19 has affected everyone across the globe, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that some sections have been more seriously impacted than the others.
Like Indian women, wanting to shed unwanted pregnancies.
In order to make medical facilities and space available to those hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, India put abortion under the non-essential medical services category. Wisely, the government changed its decision while re-considering its grave importance.
However, the damage seems to have been done. During the lockdown, most abortion clinics have been shut down and an increasing number of women have been forced to resort to quackery using sticks, roots and herbal medicines, which have zero credibility. There are also those who have taken recourse to abortifacient medicines that are easily available over the counter.
First a look at some grim statistics:
**Nearly 6.4 million pregnancies are terminated every year in India.
** 13 women die every day in India because of unsafe abortion.
** It is the third leading cause of maternal deaths, contributing to 8% of all such casualties annually
Dr. Aisha Perveen, Assistant Professor at Jamia Hamdard, says that she has seen many complications due to unsafe abortions, including a ruptured uterus and intestines.
The Coronavirus, has, if anything, worsened the situation. A report by the Foundation for Reproductive Health Services, India, estimates that the pandemic situation could lead to an additional 834,042 unsafe abortions and 1,743 maternal deaths.
Indian laws relating to abortion are anything but uncomplicated. The right to abortion comes under a human right imperative and cannot be overlooked even when the country is in a state of an emergency. The pandemic lockdown has made it even more tedious than it already was for women to get a safe abortion.
According to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, a woman cannot get an abortion done after 20 weeks into pregnancy, except when her life is in danger. A layman, unaware of the basic foundations of women rights, may perceive the MTP Act as very liberal and supportive of women’s choices and rights.
However, a closer look reveals that the idea of choice that it offers, is merely an illusion. The conditions under which a woman is allowed by law to get an abortion are:
- When pregnancy poses a serious threat to the mother’s life or to her physical or mental health.
- The foetus has severe abnormalities
- Pregnancy is a result of rape/sexual assault
- The pregnancy was caused because of the failure of contraceptives in case of married couples.
The decision to abort does not lie in the hands of the mother, but of the doctor. Any abortion to be performed after 20 weeks needs the permission of a court.
India’s history, when it comes to abortion rights, is patchy, to say the least.
The Datar v Union of India is a landmark case in this regard. The case was filed by Mumbai-based Dr Nikhil Datar in the Supreme Court to appeal that the then existing time limit of 20 weeks of foetal age for termination of pregnancy violates a woman’s fundamental right.
This was done after the Bombay High Court in 2008 failed to grant permission for MTP to one of his patients, a pregnant woman whose foetus was diagnosed with severe abnormalities in her 24th week. She was advised to get the foetus aborted, but the court failed to acknowledge her mental anguish and denied her the right to do so.
This and many similar cases forced Dr Datar and the Human Rights Law Network to go to the Supreme Court in appeal. When several similar medico-legal histories came to the limelight, the government could no longer ignore the necessity of addressing this clause in the MTP Act.
Naturally then, a sense of optimism arose in Indian women after the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Act, 2020, was passed in March 2020. Under this Act, the gestational period under which a woman could get an abortion was increased from 20 to 24 weeks – yet again with certain conditions and applicable only to differently abled women, victims of incest, rape survivors and minors.
Why are women resorting to unsafe abortions? Medical officer Dr. Farheen believes it is on account of the restrictions imposed by law. According to her, it “is a tedious process to get permission from the court to perform an abortion past 24 weeks and it adds to increase the period of gestation to few more weeks, which raises the risk to the patient.”
So why should there be a gestation period at all? Dr. Deepa Jaiswal, a gynaecologist working at the Life Care Hospital in Gorakhpur, gets cases related to complications from unsafe abortions almost every month. She is candid enough to admit that out of 67% unsafe abortions in India, 50% don’t even bother to consult a doctor!
Another provision of this MTP amendment includes the formation of a medical board in each state, which will decide whether an abortion can be performed or not. At one stroke, this provision takes India back by a thousand years, when private matters did not lie in the hands of the affected, but with their representatives.
The lawmakers have failed to implement laws that allow women to have control over issues that are private and personal. The fundamental right to life, including personal liberty, should provide for a woman to be able to make her own reproductive decisions and choices.
Economically, the annual cost of treating major complications from unsafe abortions is considerably high. Says Sophia Pierre-Antoine, programme coordinator of the Young Women’s Christian Association, “A big part of being a feminist is to make sure that young women know that they have rights.”
It would be unrealistic to expect a drastic change in the outlook of the legislature, once so heavily clouded by misogynistic beliefs and gender inequality, that even women failed to recognise the fact that they have exercisable rights.
What is needed from lawmakers is implementation of laws that adhere to fundamental values such as equality, justice, liberty and freedom of choice. It is time for India to break this cycle of control and enable women to make their own decisions and in doing so, rise together as a nation operating to its full potential.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.