India should now help US on reproductive rights laws

It is bizarre that with the overturning of the Roe V Wade judgement, the US is left fumbling on an issue that India legislated on half-a-century ago

Protesters shout as they join thousands marching around the Arizona Capitol after the Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision Friday, 24 June, 2022, in Phoenix. AP

If India legislated sanely on reproductive rights over 50 years ago, why do Americans think that their own state legislatures cannot or will not do the right thing now that its Supreme Court has put the onus on them? Why are Americans behaving as if abortion rights have been banned forever? Is this “First World” country so irrevocably regressive that the women have no recourse or hope now but to fall back on unsafe illegal backroom terminations?

The summary of the Supreme Court judgement reads: “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. The authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.” With this overturning of the Roe v Wade judgement, abortion bans will come into force in 20 US states thanks to the so-called ‘trigger law’, though some have exemptions for foetal health and for rape and/or incest survivors. That is a giant backward step.

India — long looked upon with condescension by the US and the West — set up the Shantilal Shah Committee way back in 1966 whose suggestions were accepted in 1970 and incorporated into the initial abortion legislation. It was passed as the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act in August 1971. And this was two years before intervention by the US Supreme Court provided the same benefit to women in the US via the now-reversed Roe v Wade judgement.

India amended the MTP Act further in 2003 to enable accessibility to legal, safe abortion services. And last year — March 2021 — the MTP Act was amended once again so that Indian women can now get abortion services on grounds of contraceptive failure and the gestation limit has been increased to 24 weeks for special categories. Further, abortion services are now 100 per cent covered by the government’s Ayushman Bharat and Employees State Insurance.

Incidentally, abortion is still criminalised under Section 312 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 wherein unless it is done to save the life of the woman, it is a criminal offence wherein the providers of the service face three years’ jail and/or fine and the women faces seven years’ jail and/or a fine. However, the MTP Act and its provisos for timeframe medical supervision is deemed an exception that prevents the implementation of this section except in illegal abortions.


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That Indian legislators had the foresight to make an enabling law over 50 years ago on the reproductive rights issue that is tearing the US apart today must be appreciated. Indian legislators are routinely criticised for being venal, regressive and even patriarchal, but they did ‘do the right thing’ when called upon to do so. Indeed, the only gripe that Indian activists now have is that abortion cannot still be sought by women on demand, as is the case in 73 countries.

The lessons that the US can draw from India are obvious. One is that reproductive rights should not be left to the tender mercies of religious or political lobbies; they should be legislated upon looking at the big picture. India clearly did not let lobbies interfere in 1971, 2003 or 2021 but the dividing line in the US appears to be the Bible belt of the southern states, pointing to an inexplicable sidelining of modern imperatives to appease conservative religious groups.

Interestingly, it was once the northern US states with significant Catholics that pushed for more stringent anti-abortion laws. But as the feminist movement gained ground in the 1960s and 1970s, the Southern Protestant evangelicals suddenly veered towards pro-life stances even as the Catholics eased up in the North. And given the hold of these churches in the south even the Democratic Party is still diplomatically ‘hands-off’ on this issue there.

A more positive lesson is that the will of the majority — as represented by elected legislatures — should not be deemed incorrigibly regressive and bypassed but should be “persuaded” to do the right thing or be voted out. India in 1971 was a far cry from 2021 and yet legislated maturely on an issue intimately connected to the gamut of women’s rights. India’s Parliament then (as now) was overwhelmingly male and yet passed a very progressive law.

Protestor at downtown Atlanta, 24 June, 2022, following the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. AP

That the US public appears to distrust the ability of their elected representatives to move forward on reproductive rights including abortion points to a painful disconnect. If the US believes itself to be “the” (not just “a”) leader of the free world, its legislators will surely not duck this issue? And if they do ignore the will of the people, they can count on becoming political pariahs, right? Or is their system simply not geared to be responsive or responsible?

This Supreme Court verdict will force America to confront its demons on the issue of reproductive rights too, along with other festering problems such as gun laws and rising violence. All too often these days US politicians appear to be on a different page from their voters. If data indeed shows that most Americans want abortion rights, there is really no rationale for so many legislatures to pass laws banning them or impose impossibly tough conditions.

As a country that loves to lecture other countries — including India, invariably — on everything from religious freedom to human rights, the US stumbling on as basic a right as safe termination of unwanted or unsafe pregnancies is bizarre. Is it evidence of an increasingly dysfunctional society and polity that should seek the advice and help of more legislatively advanced nations on such matters? India certainly has the expertise to pitch in with draft laws.

The author is a freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.

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