Realizing Rights: Access to Legal Abortion in India

IndiaAudacia Ray,  Online Communications and Campaigns Program Officer at IWHC, is traveling in India for two weeks with Asia Program Officer Khushbu Srivastava.  During the trip, Audacia and Khushbu will visit our partners in the region, document their work, and provide training and technical assistance, among other things. Here we bring you the second of a series of notes on her travel experiences.

After spending four days in Delhi and splitting time between doing trainings for CREA and The YP Foundation, Khushbu and I got up at 4 a.m. last Thursday morning to fly to Mumbai.

The main reason we went to Mumbai was to meet with CommonHealth, a burgeoning organization that facilitates and mentors community health initiatives in multiple states across India. The organization is the result of collaboration between really amazing women: doctors and professors with a deep commitment to transforming sexual rights and reproductive health care at the community level. Over the several hours that we spent with Suchitra Dalvie, Sundari Ravindean, Renu Khanna, and Leena Uppal, we discussed lots of women’s health care issues; one of the most striking was our conversation about the state of safe abortion in India.

India’s Medical Termination of Abortion Act made abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy legal in some cases in 1971. However, the passage of this act was not the result of feminist activism like Roe vs Wade in the United States, it was the result of a technical assessment of the health risks of illegal abortions, which were often done in unsafe conditions. As a result, access to abortion wasn’t framed as a rights-based issue. Today, one of the barriers to safe abortion is the fact that many women, especially those in rural areas, don’t know that they have the legal right to access abortion services. Stigma about teen pregnancy, pregnancy outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy within marriage, and the ongoing controversy around sex-selective abortion all combine to make access to safe and legal abortion a challenge.

Clearly, access to safe abortion is not just about making abortion legal. Legal abortion is only one step toward women’s ability to claim this important right. Today, feminist activists in India are uniting around the issues of access to safe abortion to shore up the laws and create better access for the women who need it.

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