Abortion: a fundamental right
One finds oneself agreeing with much of Dr. S.G. Kabra’s views on abortion in India (1). The Indian State’s interest in providing abortion services in the country, has as Dr. Kabra points out, been governed essentially by the exigencies of the family planning programme. The programme operates both from eugenic considerations – the perceived ‘need’ to prevent some sections of the population from reproducing themselves – and from perceived ‘national’ interests. He also rightly focuses on the indifference of the State in allowing illegal or badly performed abortions that can lead to a range of health problems for women, and in some cases, their deaths.
However, I take objection to the thrust of Dr Kabra’s argument, which suggests that the right to abortion involves the ‘fundamental rights of two individuals – the mother and the foetus’. Simultaneously, a connection is drawn between abortion and infanticide. The statement on what stage a foetus can be seen as an individual in its own right is disturbing. It tends to look at abortion at a certain stage of the pregnancy as being acceptable and unacceptable at others. The notion that the foetus is an individual in its own right infuses an emotional angle to the entire debate on abortion that in my view is unacceptable. It can, taken to its logical conclusion, lead to the perception that contraception itself is unacceptable, as it can destroy a potential life.
Abortion causes emotional turmoil for many women and their families, especially when accompanied with coercion by the state. However, it cannot be seen as anything less than an unalienable right for women. Women have a right over their bodies and their reproduction, that cannot be transferred to their families or the state. This is more relevant in this country where childbearing is modified by social mores; and women’s right to decide when and if they want to bear children remains a theoretical rather than a practical right. The existing laws on abortion are inadequate and designed to serve the interests of the family planning programme, rather than to allow women to regain control over their bodies.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (henceforth MTP Act) was passed in 1971. (2). Under this act, women have a restricted right to abortion. The declared objects of the Act are to help women who become pregnant as a result of rape, married women who are pregnant due to contraceptive failure, or to reduce the ‘risk’ of severely handicapped children being born. As with the family planning programme, the right to contraception is seen as applicable only to married women, marital sexuality alone being seen as legitimate.
Under the MTP Act, regulations on record maintenance require the doctor performing the operation to maintain records on each abortion which include the reasons for the abortion — legally, the woman cannot avoid giving an explanation. This register is a secret document, to be destroyed by the doctor at the end of five years since the date of the last entry.
There is much scope for misuse. Many married women undergo abortions without the knowledge of their family members, including, at times, their husbands. For single women, the need for secrecy is even more pressing. Not only do they face a greater degree of social control; the abortion may well be out of the purview of the MTP Act. Given this, the register can easily become a tool for blackmail in the hands of unscrupulous medical practitioners and medical staff.
Besides, the insistence that woman explain their reasons for an abortion, and denying the clause of contraceptive failure to single women, demonstrate the not so hidden moral agenda of law makers. At a more general level, this makes a mockery of women’s right to abortion, and in an extended understanding, women’s rights over their bodies.
Geetanjali Gangoli, Flat no. 1, Neelam, 14th B road, Khar (W), Mumbai 400 052.
- Kabra SG: Abortion in India: not a right but a state-sponsored programme. Issues in Medical Ethics 2000 VIII (3): 70.
- Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. Department of Women and Child Welfare, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. 1971.