On Friday, Roe Vs Wade, the landmark decision that established the constitutional right to abortion in the United States in 1973 was reversed by the US Supreme Court.
The apex courts’ decision drew a spate of sharp criticism from activists and attorneys all across the world. President Joe Biden himself termed the move as "a sad day for the court and the country" as it puts “the lives of women across the country at risk”. Addressing the White House, Biden said that the “court has done what it's never done before.”
Abortion rights activists around the world are worried that the judgement would threaten the recent moves toward the legalisation of abortion in their countries. Over the past few decades, significant progress has been achieved in guaranteeing women's access to abortion, with approximately 50 countries liberalising their abortion laws.
The World Health Organization estimates that there are roughly 73 million abortions conducted annually. This amounts to approximately 39 abortions per 1,000 women worldwide, a number that has been relatively steady since 1990.
Countries under claws of stringent laws
Coercive abortion laws, in addition to violating a woman's right to govern her own body, also go against other rights that are universally acknowledged, like the rights to equality, health, and the free and responsible choice of how many children to have.
Abortion restrictions range from laws where abortion is permitted only to protect the pregnant person’s life or health, to decriminalising abortion entirely. According to a report by the Center for Reproductive rights , 90 million women of reproductive age live in countries that prohibit abortion altogether.
In countries like El Salvador, abortion is a crime and is prohibited even when pregnancy endangers a woman’s life or health, and even if the unwanted pregnancy arises in the cases of rape. According to a report by Human Rights Watch , girls and women in El Salvador accused of having abortions have been imprisoned for homicide and aggravated homicide. The report further states that even women who suffered miscarriages or obstetric emergencies have been sentenced to up to 40 years in prison on charges of violating the law. “As of June 2021, 17 women,” the report says further, “who said they had suffered obstetric emergencies remained imprisoned on charges of abortion, homicide, or aggravated homicide.”
Maltese women are denied access to abortion entirely, and in staunchly Catholic countries like Poland, it is illegal to terminate pregnancies even in the cases of fetal defects. Similarly, African countries like Nigeria allow the procedure only if a mother’s life is threatened, or in the cases of rape, incest or fetal defects, as in Botswana and Zimbabwe. In Andorra and San Marino, abortion is not allowed at all.
Forty-one per cent women of reproductive age across the world live under restrictive laws, and this often results in them taking different courses that are often unsafe. Hence, the legal restrictions, rather than bringing down the number of abortions, coerce the women to risk their lives and health by seeking out unsafe abortion care, which, according to the WHO, results in 23000 deaths every year.
Hope has not vanished
The United States is going against the global trend, as many countries are choosing to liberalise the abortion law. In the 21st century, thirty-seven countries have changed their abortion laws by expanding the legal grounds that ease access to abortion care.
Abortion is legal in 41 European nations but prohibited in six others. In the European Union (EU), out of 28 member states, 26 have legalized abortion on request or broad social grounds.
Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico have made considerable progress toward the legalisation of abortions over the past decade. In Columbia, the apex court ruled in February to legalize the procedure until the 24th week of pregnancy. In Mexico last year, the Supreme Court struck down a law that punished women with imprisonment for having an abortion, even in cases of sexual assault. The robust feminist movement in Argentina urged the legislators 2020 to legalise abortion until the 14th week of gestation and after that in certain circumstances.
In countries like Northern Ireland, abortion was decriminalized in 2019, but the liberalization does not necessarily mean that abortion is easily accessed. Now the country permits abortion up to 12 weeks after conception on request and after that for particular reasons such as severe foetal impairment and anomalies.
African nations like Benin have also eased or reversed their colonial-era abortion prohibitions over the past ten years. South Africa and Mozambique allow abortion, which is though limited only to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Unlike the "pro-life" versus "pro-choice" debates that predominate in Western discourse, abortion is rarely as black and white in Asia. The abortion laws are not stringent in countries like Japan and China, and that is majorly because of the keeping demographic dynamics in check—for instance, to limit, expand and alter the populations.
In 2019, South Korea decriminalised abortion and made it unconstitutional to penalise both women and medical professionals who have or conduct abortions.
Where does India stand?
In India, abortion is legal under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) act which was first enacted in 1971. Before that, abortion was criminalized under Section 312 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Since then, the act went through a series of amendments all of which were aimed to enhance access to abortion care.
The most recent amendments came in 2021 when the government of India passed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Act. The gestation period upper limit for abortion was extended from 12 weeks to 20 weeks, with the rule being expanded to include unmarried women as well. The upper limit can go from 20 weeks to 24 weeks in special cases, for instance if the woman is a victim of sexual assault, rape, or incest. The relaxation of the upper limit also applies to women who suffer from physical disabilities or mental illnesses. Further, there is no upper gestation limit for abortion in case of foetal disabilities or anomalies, if so decided by a state-level Medical Board of specialist doctors.
Although the rules have been relaxed up to a huge extent, the process of abortion mostly remains stigmatized in India as many women are forced to explore unsafe options. A 2018 report noted that 13 women die in India every day due to unsafe abortion-related cases. While India’s abortion law is one of the most liberalized in South Asia, women are yet to take feel empowered.