The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told the Supreme Court Wednesday that a pregnant woman’s right to abort is not “absolute”. The Centre was responding to a petition seeking to extend the limit on terminating pregnancies from 20 weeks to 26 weeks.
ThePrint asks: Is Modi govt right in telling SC that women don’t have absolute right to abortion?
Women must have absolute right over their bodies
Amir Ullah Khan
Professor of Health Economics at the MCRHRDI
If one looks at this topic strictly from a legal point of view, then the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act does state that women do not have absolute right to abortion, there are certain conditions in place. However, there are enough cases where courts have given women complete right over their bodies.
But we must understand that while talking about population, family planning and women’s rights, one needs to look at these differently — not just from a legal perspective. Women must have absolute right over their bodies. We cannot have a discussion about healthy mothers and children without talking about a woman’s right to her body. In India, abortions are still a stigma, that might be one among many reasons why more than 50 per cent of the abortions here are unsafe. In this context, if we further suppress women’s rights, then it will be sending a wrong signal. If we are concerned about reducing maternal mortality and giving choice to mothers, there is no other way to ensure this apart from guaranteeing that women can make decisions about their own bodies.
Women’s safety is a big concern in India. Modi government’s statement to the Supreme Court essentially indicates that women don’t have agency over their own bodies. This will only make them feel more unsafe than they already do.
Women are not designed to kill their unborn baby; they will break down if they do
Co-founder, Life For All NGO
Scientifically speaking, no doctor would argue that life begins at the moment a woman
conceives. As a woman, I can choose to have any job or own any car I want, but
this choice is limited till the point it does not harm anyone. I do not have the right to beat up or rape anyone.
The life in the womb has eyes, nose, hair, fingernails. So, women do not have the right to kill that unborn baby. Brain waves in a fetus can be monitored for 16 weeks and in India, a woman can terminate her pregnancy within 20 weeks. So, it would be like killing a baby who has not even fully matured in the mother’s womb. A woman most definitely has the right to decide who she wants to have sex with, but does not have the right to kill the baby inside her.
A recent study showed that mental anguish and pain felt by women delivering babies with abnormalities were less compared to ones choosing to abort their babies.
Women are not designed to terminate the life inside their wombs, they are designed to nurture the life inside them. Aborting a fetus will break the mother’s heart at some or the other point of her life. After abortion was legalised in the US in 1973, the divorce rate shot up and there is a very obvious link between the two.
Raising the cap to 24 weeks will not in any way hamper the safety of woman
CEO, Ipas Development Foundation
The 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act gives the medical practitioner the right to decide on the termination of a pregnancy. However, one of the reasons why women can opt for an abortion as stated in the Act is contraceptive failure, a justification that is stated in most cases, making abortion access fairly liberal.
That being said, ideally, a woman should have the absolute right to abort her pregnancy. A woman must have autonomy and agency over her own body. It should be the woman’s right to decide on her reproductive choice, and not the government nor the healthcare providers.
Sixty per cent of women in India believe that abortion is illegal, and therefore undergo unsafe abortions in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s statement to the Supreme Court can very easily be misinterpreted and make women believe that abortions are illegal.
And what about unmarried women or rape survivors?
At least in such cases, the time period to terminate the pregnancy should be extended to 24 weeks. Raising the cap to 24 weeks will not in any way hamper the safety of the woman. Abortion procedures now are extremely safe.
Research has shown that abortion is safe only in the first 10 weeks of gestation period
Advocate, Supreme Court
The question is not about the “absolute” right of women to terminate their pregnancies, but it is about whether it is medically safe to do so after 20 weeks. It is about the safety of both the mother and the child, and not just about an individual’s right. The medical termination of pregnancy in India is allowed only till 20 weeks of the gestation period for mainly two reasons.
The first concerns the safety of the mother. Research on the subject of abortion has indicated that abortion is safe only in the first 10 weeks of the gestation period. In fact, it is suggested that a woman should not have a medical abortion if she is more than 70 days (10 weeks) pregnant. After 10 weeks, surgical abortion is the preferred method. There are many risks associated with medical abortion including infection, bleeding and incomplete abortion. There are medical threats associated with surgical abortions as well. A global survey shows that only 1.3 per cent abortions occur after 20 weeks gestation period, and those too because of rare complications. So, to protect women from such risks associated with a late abortion, a cap of 20 weeks is justified.
Second, the right to life of an unborn child is also a subject that has been considerably debated. In the legal sphere, fetal rights are discussed in light of fetal viability, i.e., the ability of a fetus to survive outside the uterus, based on fetal lung capacity that typically develops within 20-24 weeks. So, it can be argued that abortion should not be allowed for the sake of the right to life of an unborn child.
Right to decide is applicable to everyone — single women, married women, pregnant women, rape survivors
When the Modi government tells the Supreme Court that women do not have the “absolute” right to terminate their pregnancies, it is actually saying that women have no agency over their bodies. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare argued that it was the government’s duty to protect a mother and her unborn child. This is the exact parens patriae rationale also used while deciding cases of custody, as was seen in the Hadiya case. This doctrine essentially gives the State the power to act as a guardian, and consider itself the ‘father of the country’. Like its name, this principle is also extremely patriarchal in its practice and paves the way for the State to moral police the citizens.
The heartbeat ban or the legislation banning abortion in the US, enacted a few months back in Georgia, which makes abortion illegal even as early as six weeks of pregnancy, aims to manipulate people into supporting extreme abortion laws, using the rationale of the presence of fetal heart tones. The irony is that some women do not even know that they are pregnant six weeks into pregnancy.
The pro-choice abortion debate also voices concerns of rape survivors. However, to establish a point we need not invoke such grave examples. The right to decide is applicable to every woman — a single woman, a married woman, a woman in a committed relationship, a pregnant woman who faces complications, a woman who does not want children, a rape survivor.
By Revathi Krishnan, journalist at ThePrint