Unsafe abortions kill lakhs of women every year. Still, chained by religion and patriarchy, abortion regulations hesitate to see the obvious tragedy. Safe abortion is a fundamental right of women. Here’s why.
A few weeks ago, Argentina legalised abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The move came as a shock to many; Latin America is predominantly Catholic and the Church’s staunch opposition to abortion and contraception is pretty well known. In 2016, an Apostolic Letter from Pope Francis, who is known for his liberal views on issues such as homosexuality, had called abortion “a grave sin”.
Argentina, which is the motherland of the Pope, may have managed to ignore the Church’s vocal resistance towards abortion, but abortion-rights (pro-choice) activists say there is still a long way to go. Legalising abortion is important, say activists, because unsafe abortions kill thousands of women every year. Data from the UN shows during 2015-2019, more than 7.3 crore abortions occurred worldwide each year. In developing countries alone, unsafe abortions land about 70 lakh women in hospitals every year. Every day, thousands of women die of unsafe abortions across the world. In India, studies show unsafe abortions kill 13 women a day. India aborts some 64 lakh pregnancies every year and abortion is the third major killer of mothers in India, show government data.
Yet, many countries have been loath to provide access to safer abortions, largely due to political and religious considerations. For want of safe options, women are forced to cough up more money and travel to distant regions where they can carry out abortions secretly but not necessarily safely. The poorest women take to crude and unscientific practices and self-harming procedures to induce a miscarriage. The WHO estimates that during 2010-14 around 45 per cent of all abortions were unsafe and almost all of them took place in developing countries, such as India.
Texts of control
Religion and patriarchy often deny women the basic right to choose childbearing — and thereby have control over their own lives and bodies. Nevertheless, history shows the idea of terminating pregnancies is as old as civilisation itself.
Primaeval texts are rife with descriptions of abortifacients — substances that induce a miscarriage. Several non-surgical methods were also practised to trigger a miscarriage. These included anything from fasting, bloodletting (withdrawing blood), hard physical labour and weightlifting to pouring hot water on the stomach, tightening the girdle and such.
Evidently, many of the methods were harmful to the woman.
Ancient Greece and Rome were not particularly averse to the idea of abortion. They suggested the use of botanical preparations including silphium, common rue, birthwort and so on to trigger a miscarriage. The only exception was believed to be in cases when the woman performed the procedure without her husband’s knowledge and hence denied him of an heir.
Back home, in the Indian peninsula, Vedic texts were mostly centred on the idea of preserving the seed of the upper castes and hence the practice of abortion invited penalties for the woman who underwent any such procedure.
In the modern era, the idea of abortion began to be viewed as a crime primarily due to the influence of Europe and, by consequence, Christianity. The church considers the unborn fetus as a ‘legitimate person’ right from the moment of conception. This made abortion equivalent to murder. In Islam, though the fetus is generally considered to be a living soul after 120 days of gestation, there is wide variation within the community regarding the gestational age before which abortion is permissible.
The Western world per se did not see abortion as a criminal offence if it was done before the fetus began showing movement, a phenomenon known as quickening, around 18-20 weeks of pregnancy. In 1803, the English made abortion after quickening a major offence punishable by the death penalty.
The US was a bit slow to catch up. By the 19th century, abortions were rampant in the country with even many married women and those from the middle-class opting for it. But the American Medical Association began running a campaign to criminalise it, as a result of which by 1880 every single state had laws expressly prohibiting it. Like every other similar law, the legislation did nothing to prevent abortions; it only made access to abortion more difficult for women, particularly the poor. Women had to travel more, spend more and risk more to get an abortion.
It took nearly a century and a 25-year-old single woman to overturn the law.
Roe versus Wade
It was a landmark 1973 Supreme Court judgement in Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal across the US. Twenty-five-year-old Norma McCorvey, who went by the pseudonym Jane Roe, challenged the law which criminalised abortion unless the mother’s life was in danger. The court ultimately held that the law infringed on a woman’s freedom of personal choice in family matters.
But the US was hardly the first country to legalise abortion. This is a grey area, because of several factors and the conditions that nations put forward for the procedure to be legal.
In 1920, the Soviet Union legalised abortions but the country underwent a series of political and regime changes and the law did not stand for long. Nearly a decade later in 1931, Mexico legalised abortion in cases of rape. A year later, Poland added maternal health and rape as legal reasons to abort a fetus.
In 1935, even Nazi Germany allowed abortion for women who had hereditary disorders, provided she consented to it. Unfortunately the intent behind this was to promote ‘racial hygiene’. Since then several countries have gone back and forth switching between pro-life and pro-choice laws.
As the numbers stand today
According to the US-based Centre For Reproductive Rights (CRR), “the inability to access safe and legal abortion care impacts 700 million women”. Depending on the part of the globe you live in, abortion laws could be anything from quite liberal to extremely restrictive. Even among countries that permit abortion, it is subject to widely varying gestation periods of the fetus.
CRR has broadly categorised countries on the basis of the legal status of abortions:
1) Prohibited altogether
Five per cent of the women in the world live in countries that completely ban abortion. That is a whopping 90 million across 26 countries! It includes countries that strictly follow religious codes, such as Malta, the Philippines, Vatican City, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. The law does not provide for abortion even to save the mother’s life. As a result, many women who suffer natural miscarriage are wrongly accused of ‘homicide’ and even imprisoned.
With no proper recourse, women in such countries often resort to dangerous practices such as introducing blunt objects, rods, caustic fluids, chemicals, etc into their body to induce a miscarriage. Interestingly, Vatican City seemed comfortable in contradicting its own high ground on abortion when it stated in December 2020 that it is “morally acceptable” to receive Covid-19 vaccines “based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses”.
2) To save the woman’s life
This is a slightly more humane approach followed by 39 countries including Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan and impacts nearly 359 million women. But such laws tend to be vague and may invite strict penalties for those who are unable to prove that the mother’s life was in imminent danger.
3) To preserve health
As many as 237 million women (14 per cent) live in countries that allow abortion on grounds of health. Of the 56 countries that follow this system, 25 have gone a step ahead and included mental health under its purview. The Central African Republic, Kenya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Peru, Colombia, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea currently come under this classification.
4) Broad social/economic reasons
India comes under this category of 14 nations including Finland, the UK, Ethiopia, Zambia and Japan, which consider the impact of the pregnancy on the woman’s future, socio-economic conditions, etc. The gestational age of the fetus, however, varies according to the country.
India’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 allows for abortion of fetuses aged up to 24 weeks.
5) Provided on request
More than 36 per cent of women of reproductive age live in 66 countries that allow abortion on request. This includes the US, Canada, Australia, China, Russia, most European countries, and most recently Argentina. Though gestational limits vary, 12 weeks is the most common.
Some countries in category 2-3 and all of them in category 4-5 permit abortion in cases of rape, incest or fetal impairment. According to a 2016 study published in The Lancet, whether a country has banned abortion or not, the rate at which it is performed is similar in both cases, at between 34 and 37 per 1,000 women annually.
But while almost 90 per cent of abortions in liberal nations are considered safe, only 25 per cent are safe in countries where it is forbidden. Rights activists have over the years fought hard to ensure that women have choices that are less demeaning and safer for their health.