A Vindication of the Abortion Rights of Women

    • By,
      Nandini Diwan – Student, Kautilya

In 2015, at age 81, Gloria Steinem dedicated her book“My Life on the Road” to Dr. John Sharpe, a courageous medical practitioner who had performed an abortion on her when she was an unmarried 22-year-old woman during a time when such procedures were illegal. His only condition to her being, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.” He risked his career to uphold her right to bodily autonomy and life. The right to abortion is the right to life for a woman being held hostage by the moral dictates of a society governed by patriarchal norms that refuse to acknowledge a woman’s bodily autonomy.

The Right to Abortion has become a yardstick for determining gender parity, closely intertwined with promoting access to healthcare for girls and women, which has significant implications for education retention, career advancement, poverty alleviation, and gender equality. The primary discovery from The Turnaway Study is that undergoing an abortion does not negatively impact the health and overall well-being of women. On the contrary, being denied an abortion leads to more adverse financial, health, and family outcomes.

This fundamental right of bodily autonomy, or an individual’s agency over their own body, is particularly significant regarding reproductive and sexual agency. Women, trans, and queer individuals have historically had their bodies subjected to political debate. We can observe this, especially in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned in the United States. In contrast, India celebrated the introduction of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (2021) Act, which extended the scope of abortion to unmarried women. However, before giving ourselves a pat on the back, we must assess that despite the MTP Act, out of the estimated 77% of unintended pregnancies that end in abortion in India, only 22% of these abortions were considered safe. Why do women have to go to the Supreme Court to be allowed to have an abortion? The seemingly liberal nature of the Act is deceptive, and the ground reality remains quite bleak for individuals seeking these services.

Varun Feroze Gandhi, while introducing the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill (2020) in Parliament, declared, “Should women have total control over their bodies? In the year 2020, the answer must be an emphatic yes”. Despite the emphasis on women’s agency over their bodies in Gandhi’s speech, it is important to clarify that the Act primarily focuses on medical aspects and serves to protect the practitioner, as it legalizes institutional abortion otherwise criminal under Section 315-316 of the Indian Penal Code. This thoroughly overlooks the aspect of women’s choice in the process.

The original MTP (1971) Act was brought about after the report of the Shantilal Shah Committee, aimed at addressing the high maternal mortality rates associated with illegal abortions, conception out of sexual assault, and eugenic grounds. As important as it is to tackle such an issue, women’s right over their bodies was not a conversation that was taking place. Even today, this continues. Despite the availability to access these services, the decision rests entirely with the doctor to permit an individual for an abortion.

Even the amended MTP Act (2021), which has extended the scope of women seeking abortions from married, widowed, and divorced to include unmarried women, still has a long way to go. First, the upper limit of 24 weeks has been set for certain specific categories of women: survivors of rape, incest, differently-abled women etc., while a 20 weeks limit existed for married and unmarried not belonging to the mentioned categories. Why does this distinction exist? The different set of limits, 20 and 24 weeks, is not based on medical considerations but on the discretion of the law-makers. This is why the conversation needs to shift from a medical to a feminist perspective. The bold and clear assertion by the law would help remove the stigma women face (especially unmarried) while seeking these services. Second, a fact-based study by the Centre for Reproductive Rights asserts that the Act does not prioritize reproductive rights. The MTP Act primarily safeguards medical practitioners from legal repercussions for performing abortions according to its provisions. This setup violates the constitutional right to reproductive autonomy by shifting decision-making power from the person seeking abortion to the registered medical practitioner (RMP). The law assumes the RMP to be the judge of the pregnant person’s circumstances, contradicting their autonomy. Their report further illustrates that RMPs’ abortion decisions are influenced by factors like legal concerns, social stigma, and entrenched gender biases. On the face of it, India’s abortion right may seem liberal, but the social attitudes and legal loopholes make it hard for women to access these services.

Due to the discretion of the RMPs, women seeking abortion often have to approach the courts. The court proceeding and the verdict take time, and as a result the matter becomes quite complicated given the time constraints pregnant women have. Hence, it is of utmost importance to revise the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act from the perspective of women’s agency and reduce the role of state barriers in seeking these services. While the significance of the RMP cannot be denied, it is also essential that the choice of the individual is ascertained.

It is crucial that these conversations take place in Indian society, where women’s agency is often questioned and practically non-existent for women from a lower caste and class status. When we place greater emphasis on a choice, we give the cold, strict medical procedure flesh and blood,we humanize the people having to undergo abortion. And perhaps, a sense of empathy could help reduce the stigma that otherwise plagues this society.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.