Earlier this month, the central government notified the 2021 medical termination of pregnancy (MTP) (amendment) rules, increasing the gestational limit for abortion from 20 to 24 weeks for certain categories of women. In addition, the new rules allow the creation of medical commissions empowered to expedite abortion requests filed in court and decide whether a pregnancy can be terminated after 24 weeks in the event of a fetal defect or significant risk of incompatibility with the pregnancy. life.
Viewed in the context of new narratives and laws about abortion around the world, these rules constitute a historic development. Even though some of the more developed and progressive parts of the world are considering abortion laws that deny women the right to make choices about their bodies, it should be noted that India legalized abortion five years ago. decades. With a legal abortion limit of up to 20 weeks under certain conditions in 1971, India was one of 15 countries when abortion was legal. By extending the gestation limit to 24 weeks, India is demonstrating its commitment to keeping women at the forefront of reproductive health policies.
Persistent access gaps
As we make significant progress and make giant strides in women’s health, it is crucial to take stock of the reproductive needs of women in the country. A fairly recent to study published in The Lancet estimates that nearly half of India’s 48.1 million pregnancies annually are unintended. In other words, there are millions of women of childbearing age who may request an abortion for a variety of reasons, ranging from socio-economic to psychological. Recent amendments to the MTP law restrict access to abortion to specific categories of women, including survivors of sexual assault, rape or incest, minors, women whose marital status changes during pregnancy. pregnancy, women with physical disabilities and women with mental illnesses.
This implies a contempt for women who do not fit into these categories but who may also need an abortion for reasons such as contraceptive failure or financial hardship, among others. The Lancet study also reveals that there are 15.6 million abortions worldwide, demonstrating the huge need for safe abortions in registered facilities without stigma or judgment. This leads women to seek abortions by unsafe and clandestine methods, putting their lives in danger. Considering that unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal mortality in India, this is a statistic that calls for urgent action.
Recognizing the changing reproductive needs of every woman in the country and providing equal and “unconditional” access is fundamental to preventing societal or state control over women’s bodies. No woman should end up losing her life in pursuit of a reproductive health service that rightfully should be her only choice.
Another critical barrier to obtaining safe abortion services has been the delays caused by the justice system. There are many reports of doctors referring women to court when there is a case of fetal abnormality or pregnancy due to rape or incest. Even though abortion is legal in these circumstances, the lack of awareness and awareness among some providers, and members of the justice system and law enforcement, hamper or slow down a woman’s journey.
Giving the last word to women
Lack of information and stigma are already huge barriers, especially for women on the margins of society, who are often unaware that they are pregnant until several weeks after conception. In such circumstances, forcing them to go to court and the intervention of medical boards is likely to cause further delays and lead to emotional and financial distress. More importantly, they deprive the woman of her agency, transferring the power to make decisions about her body to an outside group.
Women’s rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive health are imperative to create an enabling environment where women can thrive and contribute to the socio-economic progress of the country. Making the freedom to procreate a reality for every woman, therefore, will accelerate the process of achieving global development goals.
It is only by removing the barriers imposed by judgmental attitudes, regressive legal restrictions and the lack of adequate facilities that we can prevent women from choosing unsafe abortion methods that are life threatening. It is only by paving the way for women to seek quality and timely reproductive health services that we can claim to make progress.
India is already setting an enviable and laudable benchmark in reproductive rights for women. By recognizing the abortion needs of women in the country and liberalizing the law to increase access to abortion, we once again have the opportunity to be at the forefront of preserving rights. reproductive health of women around the world.
Bhavani Giddu is an advocacy communications consultant in the development sector, with a particular focus on her work on women’s health and rights.
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