May 11, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we debate whether laws for abortions in India are progressive or not. We also look at the setting up of government schools in tea gardens of Assam, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Abortions in India: A Right or A Privilege?
After news of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) planning to strike down the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision broke, the topic of abortion rights entered the general discourse again. The Roe v. Wade decision mainly guaranteed US citizens their right to choose while terminating pregnancies. In a draft opinion, it seems that SCOTUS wants it overturned.
From an Indian perspective, it brings up a good point: our abortion laws and their applicability as a right.
In 2021, the Centre amended our abortion laws, and people are still divided over it. From one angle, the changes look progressive – the time limit for a termination went up, and the law became more inclusive. Yet, once you move in a little closer, the cracks start showing, and the right to choose still remains a myth in the subcontinent.
So join us as we try to figure out if abortions in India are, in fact, a right or a privilege?
First, let’s get some facts out of the way. As per the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s State of the World Population Report 2022, 67% of abortions in India from 2007 to 2011 were considered unsafe. According to a 2018 report, 13 women die in India per day due to unsafe abortions. In fact, unsafe terminations are the 3rd leading cause of maternal deaths in India.
Indian law deals with pregnancy terminations in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act. It was first enacted in 1971 and has been amended only twice – in 2002 and in 2021. Till the 1960s, as per Section 312 of the Indian Penal Code, “causing miscarriage of a woman” was a punishable crime. Those found guilty could be imprisoned for up to 3 years or get fined, or both.
Based on a report from the Shantilal Shah Committee, set up by the government to look into whether the country even needed an abortion law or not, the MTP Act came to be. Founded on the principles of Britain’s abortion laws passed in 1967, the MTP regularises medical institutions and practices regarding the procedure. Basically, supersedes medical criminalisation with liberalisation.
Even then, the MTP Act only allowed terminations on two grounds. One, if the pregnancy was hammering the mental and physical health of the woman. And two, if there was enough evidence to suggest that the foetus could be born with extreme mental or physical “abnormalities”. It must be noted that the Shantilal Shah Committee only recommended abortions based on eugenics.
In 2002, the law was amended to include the use of abortion pills like mifepristone and misoprostol in the procedure. 2021 saw the major change of increasing the upper gestation limit to 24 weeks from the 20-week cut-off that was notified before. But this will only be accessible if the judge or doctor in charge is on your side.
VIEW: Step in the right direction
In 1971, when India passed the MTP Act, it was considered one of the most progressive laws at the time. No other country had even come close to handling abortions the way we did. But too much of a good thing can often lead to complacency. It seemed like India got comfortable with the abortion laws we had, and things simply moved on till advances in medicine started getting noticed. And while there might still be a long way to go, even the World Health Organisation agrees that these new amendments are definitely a step in the right direction.
The goal of these amendments is to simply strengthen the access that Indians have to safe and quality healthcare services. And whether one likes it or not, abortions are a routine procedure that comes under healthcare. While the biggest win coming from the new changes is the increased upper limit, several other changes were made with the advances in medical technology in mind. For example, issues like the failure of contraceptives are now recognised as a valid reason for terminating a pregnancy. Supporters of the amendments see this as a more empathetic move towards gender justice within the country.
The 2021 amendments also allow opinions from only one provider for terminations of pregnancies that haven’t crossed 20 weeks. Before this, two providers needed to sign off on the abortion. From 20 to 24 weeks, the opinion of two providers will be sought. Given the stigma around abortions, the name and particulars of any person who has opted for an abortion cannot be revealed without proper legal documentation from now on. There is also a clause that allows for the upper gestational limit to be ignored if serious foetal abnormalities have been detected by a Medical Board.
Finally, the wording of some clauses has also been updated to make the law more inclusive. For example, the Act now says that MTP is available to “any woman or her partner”. Before, this said that the decision would be open to “only [a] married woman or her husband”. Clearly, the push for inclusivity cannot be ignored.
COUNTERVIEW: Still no mention of actual rights
Whenever abortion rights are brought up, the discourse online gets overtaken by two groups of people – those that are “pro-life” and the others that are “pro-choice”. Pro-lifers believe that embryos and foetuses need full legal protection as life begins at conception. People that are pro-choice believe in bodily autonomy and a person’s right to choose, thus, retaining control over their body. This is what the Indian abortion law has regularly failed to address. One look at the law, and it can be understood that, at the end of the day, the final say over terminating a pregnancy belongs to medical practitioners and not the women.
Right now, 73 countries make safe abortions available to citizens at their request. This includes those in our neighbourhood like Nepal, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. As per the law, the opinion of the medical practitioner is of utmost importance to terminating a pregnancy. This means that if, for whatever reason, a doctor simply does not see your side of the story, they will deny you an abortion. And there are reports of people being denied their terminations on “moral” grounds. It’s this complete aversion to acknowledging a woman’s agency that becomes a problem.
According to disability activists, while the amendments might be well-intentioned, it still encroaches on the rights of persons with disabilities. Simply declaring “differently-abled women” as vulnerable and removing the gestational limits when the foetus shows “substantial abnormality” shows the bias against the community. Just because someone might have a disability does not make them less capable of care. The lack of counselling given to people carrying foetuses with disabilities, and the implied focus on preventing disabled births, only underlines this bias.
Finally, we come to the Medical Boards. Due to an exorbitant number of cases regarding abortions getting filed in the High Courts, it has now become customary for a Medical Board to look into the case before the court does. These boards basically check whether the case qualifies as per the pre-conditions set by the MTP Act for an abortion. They are also widely considered to be unconstitutional. This is because of all the invasive examinations that they conduct, which eventually cause a delay in the termination process and often even violate the fundamental rights of pregnant persons.
There’s something inherently wrong with our system, and we seem to keep dancing around it.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) The abortion laws in India are fairly progressive.
b) The abortion laws in India need serious reworking.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
‘Safe’ Topics, Pretence And No Sign Of India: What’s Ailing The Raisina Dialogue?
For the Left:
How British Conspired With Gandhians, Nehruvians And Marxists To Tamper With The DNA Of Hindus
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Expanded working president’s role (Himachal Pradesh) – The four working presidents of the state’s high command will have their roles expanded based on a notification issued by the All-India Congress Committee (AICC). To ensure better coordination, they have been given greater responsibilities in the state. It comes in the wake of organisational restructuring in the party’s state unit. They will also help out with the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Pratibha Singh.
Why it matters: The state goes to the polls at the end of the year. The party wants to project itself as a united unit as it recently elected Pratibha Singh. She will bank on the legacy of her husband and former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh to help the party. The Himachal Congress has been witnessing infighting with rival factions preventing the high command from putting up a challenge against the Jairam Thakur-led BJP government.
Working women (Telangana) – The state has among the highest population of working women in India, according to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) report. Per the report, 39% of women in Telangana are employed. A majority of them, 93%, are employed in non-agricultural work, compared to 64% of men. The number is the highest in women aged between 15 and 49. The state’s IT sector employs many women, while those from lower economic backgrounds work in malls and in the construction industry.
Why it matters: Women’s earnings are a key development indicator for any state and are listed as one of the Sustainable Development Goals. State officials attribute the positive trend to women-friendly government schemes, including those related to safety like last-mile connectivity. In the rural parts, women have long been working and earning a living in the agricultural sector.
Nobel prize theft (West Bengal) – The state government will write to the Centre demanding a CID probe over the theft of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize. The CBI closed the case. State secretariat Nabanna pointed out that it has been 18 years since the theft happened during the Left Front era. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said it was sad that the prize can’t be retrieved. Criticising her, the BJP said the prize was stolen by the TMC.
Why it matters: In March 2004, the medal and citation were stolen from the safety vault of the Visva Bharati Museum. In 2017, the CBI refused to hand over the case and related documents to the state government despite repeated requests. They said if the state came across any evidence, they have to inform the central agency. It angered the state government and they accused the Centre of not being serious about finding the missing prize.
Mining restart (Goa) – The state government wants to restart mining activities as soon as possible. They’ll first auction 88 leases that the government has marked for a takeover. A government official said opening new leases will take longer than restarting existing mines. The bidders will have to settle with the person who has the surface right of the particular lease. The Indian Bureau of Mines has been approached to get companies to submit their mining plans.
Why it matters: Mining in the state stopped in 2018 following a Supreme Court order to scrap the second renewal of 88 mining leases. Last month, chief minister Pramod Sawant met with Home Minister Amit Shah and it was decided to auction the 88 mining leases. He said once mining restarts, it will generate revenue worth ₹650 crores for 2022-23.
Schools in tea gardens (Assam) – For the first time since independence, high schools will start functioning in the state’s tea gardens. Last month, Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the government will also provide breakfast and midday meals in the schools. In the state’s 2017-18 budget, the government announced a proposal to set up 200 schools in tea gardens with a total budget outlay of ₹142.50 crores. It will set up an additional 81 model high schools which will be upgraded to secondary high schools in tea garden areas.
Why it matters: A majority of the workers in the tea gardens are Adivasis from the Chota Nagpur plateau region. They have been isolated and marginalised in the tea garden regions of the state. Per the Plantation Labour Act of 1951, it’s the management’s responsibility to provide primary education to children between 6 and 12 years. Previously, this wasn’t followed and due to poor infrastructure, many students drop out.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
28% – The tax rate on cryptocurrencies the GST council is mulling. It will apply to crypto mining, sales, and purchases. If introduced, it will be on par with the current GST on casinos, betting, and lottery.