By Souvik Pyne, volunteer at (FPAI) Family Planning Association of India
India is one of the pioneering countries which legalised abortion way back in 1971 and the law is often referred to as being liberal. Abortion is legal up to 20 weeks of gestation under a number of clauses. But one must consider the liberal nature of the law with a pinch of salt, as the statements in the law are very subjective to interpretation. With no words changed, the law can become restrictive as well.
Unlike most countries where legalisation was pushed by strong feminist movements, in India it was mainly brought in by two major groups – pro-population control demographers and medical professionals. This led to the lack of a rights perspective in the law and women’s autonomy over their fertility not being central to the abortion debate. The inherent medical bias means that health providers are the deciding authority. They often put a condition on an abortion service which is not actually required by law – such as only providing abortion if the woman accepts a contraceptive method (usually sterilisation or an IUD), or if she has her husband’s consent. Despite not being law, health providers have been known to deny abortion services without a husband’s consent, in order to avoid any backlash from the husband at a later date.
The societal stigma around the issue of abortion being linked to immorality makes it more difficult to talk freely on the issue. Religious influences also play a significant role.
Ignorance and myths regarding abortion among the masses is fairly prevalent. Misdirected campaigning to curb pre-natal sex selection has further muddled understanding about the legality of abortion and has adversely impacted second trimester abortion provision.
All these issues contribute towards deterring access to safe and legal abortion services. Hence, India’s abortion situation translates to ‘legal yet unavailable’.