"I was 21 and unmarried when I conceived my first child. My partner was not ready for marriage yet, and I was not ready to abort my child. I had no means to sustain our (me and my baby) lives. My parents rushed me to the nearby doctor and wanted me to say that I wanted the abortion. I had no say in making probably what was the biggest decision of my life. I did not know what to do, who to approach. I wish I knew how to stand for myself," says Urmila (name changed).
Very little is known or discussed on young Indian women who seek medical termination of pregnancy for unintended pregnancy. What is appalling is that not many women themselves know much about their legal rights or safety concerns regarding abortion.
Stigma plays a significant role here. The stigma around pregnancy in unmarried Indian women is deeply rooted in Indian social structure that if often becomes the ground of family disputes, and in extreme cases, even suicide. In a study by Guttmacher, 24% of 500 unmarried adolescent abortion seekers reported that their parents had taken punitive measures, including beating or starving them for prolonged periods.
"I was living with my partner and struggling with our jobs when I got pregnant. I was 22, and he was 26. We did not tell anyone at our respective families, of course. The 'father' of the baby decided that abortion would be the best option. He took me to the doctor. The doctor asked me whether we were married or not. I replied. No more questions asked. When I gained consciousness, I remember, I felt guilty, and there was a void." (name withheld)
The choice for abortion is not 'equal' for all women in India; the unmarried ones bear the maximum brunt. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP), 1971, allowed medical abortion up to 9 weeks of pregnancy and surgical abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020, increased the time within which a woman can undergo an abortion and also regulated the conditions under which the surgical procedure could be carried out. While the MTP Act, 1971 required the opinion of one doctor if the abortion was done within 12 weeks of pregnancy and two doctors for abortion within 12-20 weeks, the amended bill allows advice of one doctor if abortion is done within 20 weeks of pregnancy and advice of two doctors in certain cases between 20-24 weeks of pregnancy.
The bill states permission for medical and surgical cases of pregnancies due to incest, sexual assault, failed contraceptive, and in case of serious physical harm to the baby, mother, or both.
According to a survey conducted in 2007-2008, 549 unmarried women between the age group of 15-24 underwent an abortion in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand. According to a study mentioned in Guttmacher, approximately 15.6 million abortions occur in India annually. In another study conducted among unmarried female college students in the same time frame, it was found that 9 percent of women reported unintended pregnancy, circumstances of which were not clearly stated.
Studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s state that young unmarried women constitute 20-30 percent of all abortion cases. Most of these unmarried women belong to a highly vulnerable group seeking abortion in their second trimester. The same study suggested that while 59 percent of unmarried women underwent abortions in their second trimester while the count for the same was 26 percent for married women.
Here's what everyone should know about medical termination of pregnancy or abortion for unmarried women in India
The amendment in the bill also recognizes that unmarried women are entitled to seek a legal abortion.
Unmarried Indian women are legally entitled to receive a medical abortion. However, those below the age group of 18 years require consent from their guardians. Unmarried women can seek legal termination of pregnancy under the following circumstances.
-> If the pregnancy is a result of sexual assault such as rape.
-> If the pregnancy is harmful for the physical and mental health of the mother or the baby.
-> If there is a possibility that the baby may develop physical abnormalities after birth.
-> If the pregnancy is a result of contraceptive failure.
If the woman is unmarried and 18 years or older, the doctor needs only her consent in writing. If the unmarried woman is below 18, the doctor needs written consent from a guardian before proceeding with the abortion.
Unmarried women should realize that keeping or aborting a baby should be their personal decision. Nobody within or outside the family can force any woman, married or unmarried, to have an abortion. If anyone forces a woman for abortion, or if the abortion is performed without her consent, they can be punished with 10 years of imprisonment and a fine. If the unmarried mother of the unborn baby decides to get an abortion, she can consult any licensed obstetrician and gynecologist for a safe and medically approved abortion.
While abortion for unmarried women in India is legally permissible, abortion based on the sex of the fetus is considered a crime. According to the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, it is illegal to conduct any kind of test to determine the sex of the fetus. Any person seeking abortion and the doctor performing the abortion based on the sex of the fetus can be punished with up to seven years of imprisonment.
There are several obstacles in the path of an unmarried woman receiving an abortion in India. The first obstacle lies in their inability to promptly recognize that they are pregnant. Lack of general awareness associated with reproductive health is to blame here. Another reason behind unmarried women promptly seeking an abortion is fear of society, social obligations, or lack of support from their partners and parents.
The number of abortion cases in India indicates the dire need for sex education programs in India, a friendlier communication between children and parents, and educating the male partners to build a healthier and more conscientious attitude towards female reproductive health.
Content created in association with Pristyncare.