by Arshpreet Kaur, young volunteer at the Family Planning Association of India

Each year, around the world, 19-20 million women undergo unsafe abortions [Source: WHO]. Although the law in India permits safe abortion under certain conditions, here one woman dies every two hours of an unsafe abortion [Source: TIME]. The root cause for this alarming statistic is stigma around abortion and the lack of awareness about sexual and reproductive health and rights.

I have grown up considering ‘miscarriage’ and ‘abortion’ as synonyms. The reason for this misconception is the preference of word ‘miscarriage’ by society due to stigma associated with abortion. In fact, miscarriage is spontaneous loss of pregnancy while abortion means terminating the pregnancy out of choice.

Why unsafe abortion?

Most women in India view abortion as ‘illegal’ so they opt for unsafe abortion. Due to stigma around abortion, it is difficult for women to access it safely; and the fear of discrimination causes them to try unsafe methods at home to induce abortion which can be fatal. The other unsafe abortions are a result of sex-selective abortion. In some parts of India, people still prefer a male child over a female child as they consider sons as breadwinners in their old age. Another reason is young girls are often denied abortion services; hence they are left with no other choice than unsafe abortion.

The MTP Act

Abortion is legal in India under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 which allows for pregnancies less than 12 weeks to be terminated on the opinion of a single doctor. For pregnancies between 12-20 weeks, the opinion of two doctors is required for termination. Women are permitted to terminate their pregnancy by a registered medical practitioner under certain conditions – when there is a risk to the physical or mental health of woman (i.e. in the case of rape, contraceptive failure), and when there is a risk that the child would have “physical or mental abnormalities”.

If a girl is under 18 years of age, written consent from her guardian is required.

Proposed amendments to the MTP Act

In October 2014, the Ministry of Health and Welfare proposed some amendments to the MTP Act: to increase the time frame for abortion from 20 weeks to 24 weeks; to allow for an abortion to be carried out on the request of the pregnant woman instead of due to the opinion of the doctor; and to permit abortion beyond 24-weeks if the foetus has substantial abnormalities.

The draft amendments offer a positive step in the right direction. There is a need to immediately incorporate these amendments into an act which will save women from approaching the court, and from distress and a delay in abortion.

A human right

According to international human rights law, a person is granted with human rights only at birth which means a foetus is not entitled to human rights. It is the basic right of a woman to decide about her body, sexuality, fertility, and hence future. We have to acknowledge that stigma surrounding abortion would never wipe out demand for abortion. So, there is a need to strike a fine balance between abortion laws and the right to bodily integrity allowing women to own and decide about their bodies.