A young woman died after an abortion in Hyderabad on Sunday. She may have been pregnant for longer than the legally permitted term for an abortion. The clinic that performed the procedure was not licensed to do so, according to health authorities. Her case is, unfortunately, more common than one would like to believe. This is despite abortion being legal in India under stipulated conditions. And yet, fear, stigma and lack of awareness push women to take risks with their bodies and lives. They are taken advantage of by unscrupulous operators.
There are a few issues that these cases—by some estimates up to 60 per cent of abortions in India are illegal—raise. First, legal abortions are not easy to get, especially for single women, partly because doctors operate between the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act and the Post-Conception Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act aimed to check female foeticide.
However, women are also affected when doctors choose to take a moral stance and either refuse services or make it difficult to attain them. This can push vulnerable individuals to unregulated operators. Second, awareness of the law and rights of the woman are limited, even among the educated. Third, the understanding of contraceptive options and sometimes even basic biology are also limited.
Earlier this year, amendments to the MTP Act were to have been considered. These included increasing the upper gestational limit to 24 weeks for vulnerable women—including unmarried women—and making services more accessible by broadening the base of providers. Unfortunately, progress was halted after the Sangli abortion racket came to light.
Apart from reviving consideration of the amendments, the government should also consider active sensitisation of service providers to ease stigma and moral policing. It should ensure more active efforts to check unauthorised operators. Further, it is time that our children were provided robust sex education that includes an understanding of contraception, safe sex and the law.