Globally, there is a lot of stigma surrounding women’s right to safe abortion and India is no different. India is one of the few countries to have access to legal abortion since 1971 but unlike the West, the law was passed as a result of a functionalist, population control as well as maternal mortality reduction oriented perspective rather than feminist concerns of women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
Even though in India there is an absence of an organized pro-life lobby, conversation around abortion remains a taboo. It is stigmatized on religious grounds and by the same patriarchal ideology that uses abortion stigma to control female sexuality. Further, in India the situation has been worsened by the vacuum created by an absence of a rights based perspective in conversations around reproduction and female sexuality. This has allowed the patriarchal forces to use sex-selection as an excuse to encroach on women’s access to safe abortion.
The campaign against sex selection has been used by the anti-choice forces to impede women’s access to safe abortion under the pretext of balancing the sex ratio. For example a recently launched online campaign #Fight4theFeotus http://fight4thefoetus.org aims to fight for the right to life of the unborn female child. The title of the campaign has very dangerous undertones of being ‘pro-life’ and underscores the need to push strongly and visibly for a rights based and gender justice perspective in our conversations around sex selection and access to safe abortion.
In the absence of a rights based approach to women’s access to safe abortion, the conversations around women’s sexual and reproductive rights have failed to get articulated. The current discourse around sex determination in India continues to speak of sex selective abortion alone without placing the issue within the larger paradigm of gender discrimination.
Abortion stigma is systemic and plays out across multiple levels including: discourse and language, law and policies, structures and institutions, communities and individuals. The silence of women’s groups on the issue has led to further stigmatization and ambiguity with regard to the existing laws
Sex selection is just one manifestation of the different forms of gender biases prevalent in our society; we therefore need to be careful that in our endeavor to fight against one wrong we do not create another. Campaigns like the one mentioned above threaten women’s reproductive rights, and the fetus becomes an unborn child thus posing a significant threat to women’s right to bodily integrity and autonomy during pregnancy. In Ireland, giving equal rights to the fetus not only restricts abortion but also contributed to the death of Savita Halappanavar as concerns about the legality of terminating her pregnancy were placed above her own medical needs.
While such campaigns have a “saving the girl child” approach, it is critical that we also speak of ‘saving the woman from an unwanted pregnancy’ and from being forced to carry to term a pregnancy she does not want to. We need to fight for the women’s right to safe abortion!