When the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) overthrew the Roe v/s Wade judgement, women across the world drowned in collective grief because we realised that women have essentially been denied autonomy over our own bodies.
Even those of us who are not directly affected were affected because we recognise this as yet another incident that takes the world further away from the dream for gender equity.
One section was, however, quite gleeful about the verdict. Cishet men from India were gloating about the fact that since abortion is legal in India, we are way ahead of the United States when it comes to the reproductive rights of women.
Abortion laws in India are liberal, yet, are they truly inclusive?
It is true that abortion under certain conditions has been legal in India for 50 years since the passing of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act in 1971, and this Act was further amended in 2003 and 2021 to enable women greater access to safe and legal abortion.
On the face of it, the legislation is extremely liberal. Unmarried women have access to abortions, and married women do not need spousal permission for seeking medical termination of pregnancies. The law also has provisions for abortions till the end of the 24th week.
However, since the law was essentially brought in as a measure for population control rather than for the emancipation of women, there are restrictions.
A pregnancy can only be terminated after receiving the opinion of one (two if the pregnancy is between 20 to 24 weeks) doctors. What this means is that a woman cannot, for instance, walk into a pharmacy and purchase a pill for medical termination of pregnancy without the prescription from a medical professional.
This exposes the woman to the medical system, where she has to deal with the judgement and harassment of the medical professionals, especially if they are unmarried, or not accompanied by their spouse and mother-in-law.
Women from vulnerable communities, especially poor, uneducated, lower caste or tribal women are entirely at the mercy of a system that systematically strips them of their dignity and subjects them to much physical, verbal and mental abuse.
The most recent amendment of the MTP Act specifically lists “contraceptive failure” as a valid reason for women, especially unmarried women, to seek medical termination of pregnancy.
However, since the woman still needs the opinion of at least one doctor before she can go in for an abortion, she is at a mercy of an arbitrary system which works at the discretion of the medical professionals.
This, obviously, reduces her autonomy over her body. Also, while the Act grants confidentiality to the woman seeking an abortion, since most women are unaware of that clause, they remain at the mercy of a system that chooses to harass them.
Deaths due to post abortion complications is the third largest cause of maternal mortality in India
Women who seek a medical termination of pregnancy in government hospitals or in rural hospitals, run the risk of unsafe abortions. Deaths due to post abortion complications is the third largest cause of maternal mortality in India, and over 10 women die every day due to unsafe abortions.
Since the MTP Act is applicable only to pregnant “women”, transgender persons and gender non-conforming persons are excluded from the ambit of the Act.
The men who use the existence of the Act to prove how well India performs against other countries do not take any of these issues into consideration. While women in India have access to abortions, the conditions under which they can be accessed are far from ideal.
How many Indian women have complete control over their reproductive rights?
More importantly, access to abortions is not the only measure by which you can estimate the autonomy that women have over their bodies. In India, it is the spouse and the extended family who often take decisions regarding the reproductive rights of a woman.
The sex ratio in India is one of the worst in the world, and this is driven almost entirely by abortions undertaken for the purpose of sex selection. The pressure for a male child is so prevalent in the country that sex determination is rampant, and women are often coerced to undergo a medical termination of pregnancy.
In this case, the woman lacks autonomy over her own body, and is at the mercy of her man who takes decisions regarding her body.
Whether it is denying women the right to choose whether or not to abort after an unwanted pregnancy, or coercing a woman to abort a foetus of the wrong gender, it is the woman who lacks the agency to express her choice.
A third of female migrant workers working as sugarcane cutters in Beed have had a hysterectomy so they can work without being hindered by periods or pregnancies. Many pathological labs refuse to perform PAP smear tests on unmarried women.
Anecdotal evidence from oncologists shows that some men refuse to permit their wives to undergo mammograms or mastectomies because they want their women to be “whole”. All of this clearly shows that women do not have autonomy over their own bodies, and decisions around reproductive health are taken by other people.
Given such a situation, it is hypocritical to merely use the fact that medical termination of pregnancy is permitted in India to imply that the nation does better on reproductive rights of women than the United States.
Across the globe, there is a growing trend towards reducing the autonomy women have other their bodies.
Perhaps the reason why even women who will not be directly affected by the overturning of Roe v/s Wade are devastated by the judgement is precisely because we realise that every step taken towards curtailing the freedom of women in any part of the world eventually affects all womankind.
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