Ours is a young nation. Yes, our history goes back to the dawn of time but the story of the new generation is still being written. Our forefathers understood the importance of the opportunity that should be given to everyone without any discrimination to determine for themselves how they want to live and what they want to be. To ensure that they gave us our Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution of India. They also understood that time would change the society and its needs and to fulfill those needs they established the legislature, executive and the judiciary.
One of those powerful changes has been in the field of women empowerment. A lot of effort has been made in that direction to ensure that the daughters of this country grow up to be strong, educated, healthy and self-reliant women. But there has been a major oversight. None of these efforts will get the desired result unless women in India are granted their right to reproductive self-determination. The right to choose is the most sacrosanct right of all but it is grossly limited in India. The closest that we have come to giving women this right is through the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act or the MTP Act, 1971.
The gross limitation of this Act was highlighted in the Nikita Mehta case in 2008 when she was disallowed from terminating her pregnancy despite the fact that the fetus was suffering from severe abnormality. The refusal of her application was because she was 24 weeks pregnant. The law only allows such termination up to 20 weeks of pregnancy provided that at least two medical practitioners are of the opinion that the continuance of such pregnancy would risk the life of the pregnant woman or cause grave injury to her physical or mental health or there is substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities and be seriously handicapped. Fetal abnormalities do not begin to show until 18 weeks of pregnancy which leaves a very short period of time to fulfill the legal demands before any action can be taken. Some abnormalities do not show until 22 weeks of pregnancy which is beyond the permitted time limit for termination.
A similar limitation stands for pregnancies that are consequent to rape even though the lawmakers have recognized that such pregnancies cause grave injury to the mental health of the pregnant women. Recently, a 24-week pregnant woman from Maharashtra was allowed to terminate her pregnancy on the ground that it was caused by rape and that the fetus suffered from severe abnormalities. But this approval was an exception and cannot be treated as a precedent. The change must come from the Parliament and this they have promised. The MTP (Amendment) Bill, 2014, seeks to replace the limitation of 20 weeks with 24 weeks. This move comes already late, and any further delay would prove fatal for the women of this country. 55,000 women die annually due to pregnancy related causes in India and even more risk their lives by seeking out termination of pregnancy in unsafe places by untrained persons.
There are countries like Canada which have showed that true liberty is achieved by letting women choose for themselves by giving them complete reproductive control. The Supreme Court of Canada removed all legal restrictions on abortion in the case of R v. Morgentaler and stated that forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets a criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of her right to life, liberty and security of person. Similarly in Netherlands, pregnancy can be terminated at any time as per the pregnant woman’s will. Other countries like France, Germany, Spain and Portugal also have liberal laws on abortion. The impact of giving women the right over their own bodies is evident from the fact that the Maternal Mortality Rate in Canada in 2015 was 7 whereas in India it was 174.
India is at the threshold of great change. The Demographic Dividend promised by a majority of the young population of the country can be realized only if there is an increase in the participation of women in the labour force. Currently, it is a meagre 27% as compared to 80% among males. These low numbers can be attributed to, apart from poor education and poor nutrition, to lack of reproductive rights among women. More women should be able to work if India wants to develop. It is therefore, important to act fast lest all potential is lost to the wind and the future we dream for our nation remains just that, a dream. There is no doubt that women rights are human rights and no society can prosper on their gross violation.