What if legal but still traumatic abortions in India become illegal?
Though it is legal, abortions in India continue to be traumatic, say women who dread the prospect of the right taken away by a hyper conservative state and society
When Simran* first read the news that the US Supreme Court had overturned the judgement which had made abortion a constitutional right, there was just one image that came to her mind. She had recently watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where the protagonist got pregnant and was trying to abort the baby by eating and drinking strange things, and trying to hang herself by the ceiling fan. This was the image that haunted her for the rest of the night--is this what women will have to do now if they have an unwanted pregnancy? Is the emotional agony of an abortion not enough that now the people in power want women to go through physical distress as well, adding to their health complications?
She had an abortion done earlier this year and was thankful that in India, she could still walk into an abortion clinic and get the procedure done legally.
But though it is legal, abortions in India continue to be traumatic. When Simran went for the abortion, she was lucky to go to a doctor who knew her. But the others were not so lucky. People in the waiting room would stare and the receptionist would insist on adding the boyfriend’s surname on the forms (because the thought of an unmarried woman getting an abortion was too uncomfortable for her).
A student at IIT-Bombay, Simran could have gone to the campus hospital, but one of her friends who had contracted a UTI was asked by the campus doctor, “Are you sexually active? Is that how you got the infection?” That was enough for her to avoid the campus clinic.
Amyra*, a working professional, underwent an abortion in 2020, when she was still in the 2nd year of her graduation. A hospital in Delhi University’s North Campus refused to let her get an ultrasound done because “I was just 19”. While she got the required pills from AIIMS and Max Hospital, every appointment was cold and traumatic.
“The way people judged me led me to have a nervous breakdown, something that did not happen even when I found out about the pregnancy.” It was not just the strangers but even her peers who kept reminding her that she was “killing a baby”, and that she should deliver the child and ask her parents for help.
Had the doctors been a little more sensitive and told her that she could return if she faced complications or got anxious about her health, things would have been easier for her, she recalls. What would also have helped was the presence of a counsellor/psychologist at the hospital who didn’t charge a bomb, and helped her navigate her emotional distress. Soon after the abortion, she faced severe anxiety attacks and was diagnosed with clinical depression. She’d stay up nights wondering if the foetus was fully aborted.
The law does not make it mandatory for abortion clinics and maternity homes to have a mental health expert to counsel the women. But Simran thinks otherwise.
What makes more sense, she says, is normalising conversations around abortion and to treat it as just any other medical procedure. “Giving emotional and mental health support presupposes that removing an unwanted pregnancy is not normal. But then abortions are far more common than one might think,” she believes.
Akansha Chawla, a Delhi resident, is alarmed by the thought that in India too abortions can be declared illegal. It’s high time we sensitise people about women’s reproductive rights, she says. She herself has been shamed by chemists and family members whenever she bought contraceptives. A lab refused to do an ultrasound because she was not married.
Amisha Nanda, a law student at Delhi University, quips, “The fact that a foetus or embryo or even a fertilized egg has more rights than someone who is already alive is astonishing.”
Shatakshi Srivastava, who completed her postgraduation from Delhi’s JNU this year, says that when she studied about abortion in her ethics course, several men in the class would come up with anti-abortion arguments. While she figured that most of the professors were pro-abortion, it still worried her that people of her own generation could be so conservative.
“They’d argue that mothers have special responsibility and there’s nothing worse than killing an unborn child. These men would only support abortion if the pregnancy is due to a rape, or for medical reasons,” she recalled.
Chawla’s biggest fear is that if abortion rights are curbed here, the procedure would be accessible only to the privileged. The procedures are already expensive. Each ultrasound costs around Rs. 2,000, and one has to get multiple ultrasounds done. Simran says she saw others paying around Rs. 10,000 for the whole procedure.
If it’s already so expensive, who knows what might happen if the law is overturned, worry the women.
(*names changed for privacy)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)