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Anywhere in the world, there is nothing more joyful than news of the arrival of a baby. Despite all the suffering, disease and death across the planet, the birth of a child signifies hope for the future of not just the family, but for all of humankind. Therefore, many believe that killing a child in the womb by means of abortion is wilful murder. It is a choice that does not come easy. It is a choice born of desperation, often causing severe distress and sometimes even medical complications.

But this is a choice that women and their families exercise only when it is an absolute imperative. Voluntary motherhood, as some call this idea of a woman’s right to contraception or abortion, is not just a bold feminist demand for equality in reproduction and work. It is indeed about the freedom a woman must have over choices she can make about her own body.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has said that abortion can be a medical necessity and that “the science of medicine is not subjective." There are situations where pregnancy termination in the form of an abortion is the only medical intervention that can preserve a woman’s health or save her life.

The horror of a draconian anti-abortion law was highlighted in Ireland back in 2012 by the death of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist of Indian origin who died from septicemia after her request for an abortion was denied. Her death led to the rise of a movement that sparked reforms in that country and the passing of its Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill, 2018.

Last week, after the US Supreme Court overturned its Roe vs Wade judgement of 1973 that had enshrined a woman’s right to abortion and said that individual states could permit or restrict the procedure as they saw fit, the US has become one of only four countries to remove protections for legal abortion in 25 plus years.

Human rights bodies have called restrictive abortion laws as a form of discrimination against women. The Centre for Reproductive Health, a global human rights organization of lawyers and advocates, says that “this decision—which abandons nearly 50 years of precedent—marks the first time in history that the Supreme Court has taken away a fundamental right and will likely lead to half of U.S. states immediately taking action to ban abortion outright, forcing people to travel hundreds and thousands of miles to access abortion care or to carry pregnancies against their will, a grave violation of their human rights."

The abortion debate often only focuses on the physiological and medical aspects of the embryo and potential life. However, why women decide to have children or not is a social construct as well. Women are not just embryo-bearers on whom such laws can be enforced for the state to protect what’s seen (by some) as another life borne. An abortion ban deprives the woman of any agency of her own. Her own body and choices become secondary to concerns of an unborn baby. To protect a foetus, the conduct of a woman is regulated and restrained. The woman doesn’t remain a person anymore, but only the carrier of a womb.

According to the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “In about two-thirds of countries, abortion was permitted when the physical or mental health of the mother was endangered, and only in half of the countries when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest or in cases of foetal impairment. Only about one-third of countries permitted abortion for economic or social reasons or on request." Fertility rates are significantly higher in countries with restrictive abortion policies. Countries with abortion restrictions also have much higher unsafe abortion rates and much higher levels of maternal mortality.

The Roe decision in 1973 had meant that thousands upon thousands of teenagers in the US had a chance to avoid early marriage and motherhood. It also helped women avoid ‘shotgun marriages’ forced on them by unwanted pregnancies. Making abortion illegal only makes it more unsafe. It can also fuel further stigma. Abortion policies have been relatively restrictive in developing countries, but this ruling in one of the world’s most developed of all is a severe blow to not just women’s rights, but to years of the feminist movement and the march towards the emancipation of women and securing of their rights.

According to a 2021 Brookings Institute report on what economic research says about the effect of abortion access on women’s lives, “there is a causal link between access to abortion and whether, when, and under what circumstances women become mothers, with ripple effects throughout their lives. Access affects their education, earnings, careers, and the subsequent life outcomes for their children. Restricting, or outright eliminating, that access by overturning Roe v. Wade would diminish women’s personal and economic lives, as well as the lives of their families."

While women in the US have lost their constitutional right to abortion, India has had the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act in place since 1971. While it came into existence as a means of birth control, it does allow women to terminate pregnancy up to 24 weeks (by an amendment in 2021) with several caveats. Accessibility to safe and legal abortions is a crucial requirement for women’s health. However, women in India need a doctor’s approval before termination of pregnancy and there is still a stigma attached to the procedure, more so if the woman is unmarried.

Rolling back the right to abortion is like rolling back modernity. Without legally accessible and medically safe abortions, women would be in greater danger and have much harder lives. It pushes women into an unsafe dark zone if faced with an unwanted pregnancy where forced motherhood could alter the very trajectory of their life.

These are the author’s personal views.

Vineeta Dwivedi teaches communication at Bhavan’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.

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