By Josya Nath and Siddhi Arora
According to data collected on maternal mortality ratio (MMR) and Sample Registration Sysytem (SRS) by Ipas, India, an international NGO working towards making safe abortions accessible for women, an Indian woman dies every 2 hours due to unsafe abortions.
Let’s start with the definition of abortion– abortion is when a pregnant woman decides to terminate her pregnancy through medications or surgical procedure. It is typically used to terminate unwanted or unplanned pregnancies which happen either due to lack of safe contraceptive use, contraceptive failure, sexual abuse, potential harm to the mother’s physical or mental health, etc. Abortions are carried out by people of diverse identities, and for diverse reasons. This is not a rare situation, according to The Lancet Global Health along with researchers from Indian Institute of Population Sciences(IIPS), Mumbai, the Population Council, New Delhi and the New York based Guttmacher Institute, 15.6 million abortions occur in India annually. If abortions are so frequent, then why are they so stigmatised in our society?
In a patriarchal society a woman’s role is domesticated. Child bearing is expected from a married woman whereas an unmarried woman is expected to keep her virginity intact until marriage. So when either opts for an abortion, she is considered an abomination and shamed for her decision mainly because she is rejecting her ‘role’ in the society of an ‘obedient’ and ‘respectful’ woman. What we, as a society, fail to understand is that denying her abortion or stigmatising the process doesn’t decrease the number of abortions taking place, it simply increases the number of unsafe abortions.
Another reason why abortion is so stigmatised is because there is a lack of sexual and reproductive health education and awareness amongst the population. We conducted a survey on sexual and reproductive health and got 105 responses from high school and college students from mostly private institutions in Delhi-NCR and a few other states. According to that survey only 26.7% of respondents had sexual education in their institutions and a majority of the participants (40%) responded they had absolutely no sexual education in their institutions while 33.3% of the respondents only had partial sexual education in their institutions. So how does sexual health awareness destigmatise abortions? Abortions are an integral part of sexual and reproductive health. By spreading awareness to people through their institutions, there is an effort to normalise sexual and reproductive health and the rights that may relate to that. Not only that, it also allows people to respect each other’s personal spaces and normalise conversations relating to sexual and reproductive health.
An abortion is a right and not a privilege. Every woman has the right to her body and interfering in that decision is violating her rights. We need to understand that being a mother comes with extra responsibility– mentally, physically and financially– and these cannot be fulfilled if the pregnant person herself is not mentally, physically or financially prepared. Therefore, the choice should lie with only the woman who has to go through the abortion. To care for a child, one needs to mentally and physically prepared and if the mother is not ready for it can harm not only the mother, but also the child’s mental health and their childhood.
Many people argue that abortion can be misused for female feticide. According to surveys and expert gynecologists, like Dr. Nozer Sheriar 90% of the abortions take place in the first trimester and the sex of the foetus is not clear during this time, therefore, sex- selective abortion isn’t really possible then. Besides, sex selection is illegal in India, so, if a woman decides to go through abortion, it would be because of her personal choice and not based on the sex of the foetus. Many people are under the misconception that abortions are illegal in India, however, this is not the case. Abortions are actually legal in India under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act), 1971 and women can terminate the pregnancy upto 20 weeks without the consent of their partner or parents. In cases of minors or people with intellectual disabilities, they can also terminate their pregnancy upto 20 weeks but with the consent of their parents/ legal guardian. Despite, abortion being legal, a woman dies every 2 hours in India due to unsafe abortions. There are thousands of unregistered abortions happening right now in unsafe situations and by untrained providers . The reason being that we have stigmatised and shamed a right to a woman’s body to such an extent that women have to opt for unsafe methods of abortions rather than facing the shame and going in for a medically certified procedure or medication.
As I have conveyed earlier through this piece and as said by many leading gynaecologists, social humiliation will not decrease the number of abortions in India, but it will certainly increase the number of unsafe and harmful abortions. But we can change this, we can change the way everybody thinks about what a woman should do with her body. We can change the way a woman feels when she decides for an abortion, we can make her feel safe and accepted instead of humiliated and shunned. According to research most people learn about abortions from family, friends, movies, TV, social media and other online platforms and therefore, by simply using our words, our voices, in these platforms, to speak up for women’s rights including their bodily and reproductive rights and advocating for the MTP Act to be more inclusive of all women, by clearing misconceptions about abortions in our own homes and friend circles, by advocating about sexual and reproductive health and rights awareness in our communities and by supporting women who opt for abortion, we can do our part in not only saving millions of lives but also establishing a trust and a healthy relation between women and the society.