Shilpa (name changed) found out she was pregnant when she was 21. She had just enrolled in a college in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India. Distraught and alone in a big city, she took an auto-rickshaw to the nearest hospital and got an appointment with a gynecologist.
Braving critical looks, the first question she had to answer was, “Are you married?” In many parts of India, this question is asked when the doctor wants to know if the person has been sexually active. Sex before marriage remains taboo.
Eight months after the medical termination of her pregnancy, Shilpa moved to Bangalore for her first job. A few weeks later, she started receiving calls from odd numbers. Several men called her at different times – day and night – and asked her questions such as “Did you kill your child? “Do you have a husband?” “Do you sleep with other men?” “
Her contact details had been disclosed, either of the first hospital she visited or of the gynecologist’s clinic. But no one took responsibility for the harassment she faced. Finally, she blocked all unknown callers and changed her phone number.
India has some of the most progressive reproductive rights laws. However, the social stigma attached to abortion, coupled with a lack of knowledge about a woman’s rights, leads to several heartbreaking incidents like the one Shilpa had to face.
What are the changes?
In order to provide comprehensive abortion care to all those in need, the Indian government recently amended the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act 1971. other vulnerable women – decreased from 20 weeks to 24 weeks.
Under the penal code, it is a crime to have an abortion, but with the MTP in place, exceptions are allowed in such casesnm Others can also benefit from the intervention if they have the doctor’s agreement before 20 weeks.
This limit does not apply to cases of significant fetal abnormalities diagnosed by a medical board.
In addition to this, the advice of two health care providers is required for the interruption between 20 and 24 weeks. Before this period, only one service provider notice is required.
Finally, the bill introduced a confidentiality clause, under which the name and other details of women can only be revealed to a person authorized by law.
The new rules aim to extend MTP services to single women under the contraceptive failure clause, giving them access to a safe abortion by choice and not by marital status.
“This is a victory for the collective wish of women in India. The changes increased women’s reach and access to safe and legal abortion services, ”Dr Sumita Ghosh, Additional Commissioner at Comprehensive Abortion Care, Child Health and Adolescent Health, on behalf of the Indian government, said in a statement. communicated.
But reproductive rights organizations say the legislation is only the first step in the right direction.
Legal vs practical
While India’s abortion laws were not rights-based, when the MTP law was passed in 1971, it was one of the most progressive rights laws in the world. reproductive.
Fifty years later, the fundamental purpose of the law remains the same: to protect providers because abortion remains a crime under the Indian Penal Code, according to the Pratigya Campaign, a network of individuals and organizations working for the protection and promotion of women’s rights and their access to safe abortion care in India.
“Despite the amendments adopted, this is still not legislation that advances women’s rights or guarantees dignity and justice. Women and girls will continue to face significant barriers to accessing safe abortion in India. “said the Pratigya Campaign network.
The biggest obstacle remains the “contraceptive failure” clause. While this is often seen as a free pass where the doctor makes the decision based on good faith, it depends entirely on the doctor’s attitude.
In many cases, pregnant women are asked for proof of identity or even marriage certificates before the doctor approves the procedure. There are no guarantees to prevent exploitation.
“A great opportunity to craft a truly progressive and rights-based abortion law for the country has been missed,” the Pratigya coalition said.
For a country that claims to have progressive abortion laws, India also considers unsafe abortions as the third leading cause of maternal death. Almost 80% of Indian women have no idea that abortion within 20 weeks can be legal.
The notion of choice remains precarious in the Indian framework.
“In a country of 1.36 billion, there are only about 50,000 to 70,000 OB-GYNs (obstetrician-gynecologists),” Dr Suchitra Dalvie, gynecologist and co-founder of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership. “Most of them are based in towns or villages, and not all of them are pro-choice or offer abortion services.”
Referring to the changes as a story of missed opportunities, she described some major themes that she said were missed, including the transfer of power from the health care providers to the person who did not want to continue the pregnancy.
In addition to not changing the language to reflect “pregnant people” and not women, which Dalvie said would have made the law trans-inclusive, the changes do not increase the person’s autonomy and agency. pregnant or take a step towards decriminalizing abortions.
Nor can the amendments guarantee that no one is turned away or forced into an unsafe abortion, nor offer better access to medicated abortion pills.
“I come from a privileged position, but that didn’t stop someone from harassing me because of my choice,” Shilpa told DW. “For millions of women who do not have access to legal remedies, abortion care remains a distant dream.”
Edited by: John Silk