A question of human rights

In the debate on abortion, let us not lose sight of the basic right of women: the right to autonomy and to decide what to do with their own bodies.

August 11, 2016 01:08 am | Updated 04:50 am IST

We are a group of persons from across the country working with women over several decades around issues of their rights and health. In response to the article, >“A tricky debate on abortion” (Aug. 3, 2016) , we would like to contest from the perspective of women’s rights the arguments made by the author.

Worldwide, it is estimated that 46 million women seek abortion every year and the World Health Organisation estimates that close to half of these happen in unsafe conditions. In India, around 20 million women seek to terminate an unwanted pregnancy every year. Even today, due to the stigma around women’s sexuality and abortion itself, a woman dies every two hours of an unsafe abortion. What makes this statistic even more tragic is that in our country, as the article points out, we have had a law permitting abortion access under certain conditions since 1971; however, this has not ensured widespread access to safe abortion services.

Right to bodily integrity This is one of the reasons that over the last three decades, international human rights bodies, including those of the UN, have paid attention to the issue of abortion and have called upon states to remove barriers to access to safe abortion. Internationally accepted human rights law supports the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or not within the framework of the right to life, right to health, and right to autonomy and bodily integrity. There is enough evidence that non-availability of safe abortion kills — where abortion laws are not restrictive, morbidity and mortality due to unsafe abortion are much lower.

A woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy is not a frivolous one. Abortion is often the only way out of a very difficult situation — pregnancy resulting from coerced or non-consensual sex, ignorance that pregnancy may result even from the first sexual intercourse, inability to use a method of contraception due to a husband’s (or other’s) objection, fear of side effects, not receiving information and counselling at the appropriate time, wrong use of methods, discontinuities in use because of various reasons including not receiving supplies regularly, and, of course, method failure. An abortion is a carefully considered > decision taken by a woman who fears that the welfare of the children she already has , and of other members of the household that she is obliged to care for with limited financial and other resources, may be compromised by the birth of another child. These are decisions taken by responsible women who have few other options; they are women who would ideally have preferred to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, but are unable to do so. We have reported this in the many studies published by us. And if the pregnancy was the result of sexual violence and the woman does not want to continue with the pregnancy, then forcing her to do so represents a violation of the woman’s bodily integrity and aggravates her mental trauma, impeding her healing and recovery from violence.

The question of ethics

The article refers to “strong ethical objections to abortion per se”. It is worth mentioning here that abortion is permitted for social or economic reasons in 80 per cent of developed countries, as compared with only 16 per cent of developing countries. According to international human rights law, a person is vested with human rights only at birth; an unborn foetus is not an entity with human rights. The ethical issues here are not just of the rights of the foetus. The foetus is not an independent entity and depends completely on the welfare of the woman. Without her well-being, one cannot talk about the well-being of the foetus. We also need to consider the fact that the woman herself is a living human being in the here and now — the pregnancy takes place within her body and has profound effects on her health, mental well-being and life. Thus, how she wants to deal with this pregnancy must be a decision she and she alone can make.

The article also juxtaposes women’s choice to continue or terminate a pregnancy with the right of a disabled person to live. We would like to present the grim reality that adult women and young girls face when they are pregnant against their wishes or when a wanted pregnancy can become difficult to continue if the foetus is diagnosed as having serious abnormalities. The state does not offer any special relief for parents of disabled children and the entire burden of medical care, education, daily care and future security falls on the individuals alone. It is also not true that most serious foetal abnormalities can be diagnosed before 20 weeks — abortion for serious foetal anomaly often is needed after 20 weeks as tests are mostly done at 18 weeks and results can take three or more weeks.

We would like to state that upholding the rights of the disabled does not conflict with upholding women’s reproductive rights. Many disability rights activists are pro-abortion rights and those who uphold reproductive rights are also supportive of the rights of persons with disability to make reproductive choices, to not have to face coerced sterilisation and/or abortion.

A basic right Perhaps the time has come for us to discuss whether women in India are indeed equal citizens and whether the right to control their own body and fertility and motherhood choices are primary to their empowerment. The judiciary and lawmakers need to maintain a secular outlook and strive to ensure that the women citizens of this country have equal citizenship rights in consonance with the Constitution and with accepted international covenants on human rights. These include a right to life for the woman, as also a right to dignity and a right to benefit from scientific progress. Religion and other traditional frameworks are inherently imbued with patriarchy and cannot be used by a secular state to direct its laws and policies.

Let us not lose sight of the basic right of women: the right to autonomy and to decide what to do with their own bodies, including whether or not to get pregnant and stay pregnant.

Suchitra Dalvie, Sundari Ravindran, Subha Sri B., Renu Khanna (CommonHealth); Jashodhara Dasgupta (National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights); Sana Contractor (Centre for Health and Social Justice); Rupsa Mallik (CREA); Padma Deosthali (CEHAT); Sarojini N., Deepa V. (SAMA).

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