Zindagi ke Crossroads could have been the dialogue on abortion India needs to have

It is time we aborted the stigma associated with sexual health.

 |  4-minute read |   08-06-2018
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The papers, yesterday, carried an advertisement that claimed in big bold letters, “Mother asked to kill her child” and “She would be playing god”. The ad for a new reality TV show, Zindagi ke Crossroads on Sony Entertainment Television, had an interesting premise, to initiate a conversation on abortion, a taboo topic. However, the tonality of the advertisement takes the moral high ground and denies a woman agency over her body.

Abortion has been legal for nearly 50 years in India, yet women continue to endure the burden of stigma and rely on quacks to avoid the prejudice of society. A comprehensive study, “The incidence of abortion and unintended pregnancy in India, 2015”, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, estimated that 15.6 million abortions occur annually in India. 22 per cent or close to one in four abortions are provided in health facilities, almost three quarters are obtained independently through medical abortion, a non-surgical method in which medication purchased from a chemist or informal vendor is used to bring about an abortion.

The remaining five per cent are procured using various methods that are often risky. Insufficient information or awareness about sexual and reproductive health, especially among adolescents and youth, lack of access to contraception and the emphasis on an abstinence only strategy without addressing the importance of safe sex, further exacerbate the twin issues of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.

fa-690_060818070329.jpgThere have been other cases with similar grounds.

The show, which was aired last night, neglected to discuss that terminating a pregnancy is a reproductive choice – a non-negotiable component of a rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health – and a woman is the best judge of when and if she should have a baby. The laws surrounding abortion in India are progressive and allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy within a 20-week window. In fact, in July 2017, the Supreme Court came to the rescue of a pregnant woman and permitted her to abort her 26-week foetus suffering from severe cardiac problems. The woman was granted relief under an exception in Section 5 of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which allows abortion after the permissible 20 weeks in case it “is immediately necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman”.

There have been other cases with similar grounds. Given the advances in medical science and technology, the window of abortion can be increased up to 24 weeks as recommended in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2017. However, any swift action on the ordinance has been delayed; this in part due to India’s burden of sex-selective abortion, and how it is often wrongly conflated with medical abortion, which is misleading and unnecessary. 

In another global development, Ireland will be drafting a new law that will legalise abortion after 66 per cent voted in favour of legalising abortion in a landmark referendum last month. India has a tragic connection to this historic event. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year-old-dentist from Belgaum, Karnataka, suffered a miscarriage and succumbed to sepsis thereafter. Savita’s death was a turning point and her smiling portrait has now become the face of the pro-choice campaign.

While we honour Savita’s sacrifice that has culminated in Ireland’s progressive shift on women’s rights, we must also recall our own fractured relationship with the issue. Over half, or 53 per cent, of women in India are in the reproductive age group; yet young people, especially young girls and women, do not have access to information or the infrastructure that will provide them with the support they require. To terminate a pregnancy is a woman’s prerogative, and any attempt to shame or stigmatise her decision is a violation of her dignity and rights.

While the show entertained various outlooks and opinions, it failed to raise a critical issue, it did not acknowledge the right of a woman, her body, or her agency, and instead was carried away by the sentiments of motherhood. Zindagi ke Crossroads has missed the opportunity to become the grounds for an educated, scientific and rights-based conversation on abortion; instead Sony Entertainment has carelessly and irresponsibly used it a despicable ploy for TRPs.

This is a glaring reminder of the lack of sensitivity and respect for a woman’s choice and that a woman’s reproductive health is not her own but the sum of society’s expectations. It is time we aborted the stigma associated with sexual health.

Also read: How the Lalgarh tiger died a thousand deaths


Poonam Muttreja Poonam Muttreja @letstransform

The author is Executive Director, Population Foundation of India. She also serves as a member of the FP2020 Reference Group - a global initiative to develop a new global architecture for increasing access to voluntary family planning services.

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