Quiz: How much do you know about reproductive rights in India?
Let’s talk about the recent legal changes in India that empower women in the realm of reproductive health. To skip ahead to the quiz, scroll to the end of this article!
When the 17th Lok Sabha was formed in May 2019, with 78 Women MPs, it had the highest percentage of women representatives, ever.
716 women contested as candidates, and 78 were elected, making 14 per cent of the house.
This created the hope for more gender progressive policies and equal rights opportunities in India. It also made room for laws that would better empower women in the country.
Because now, in 2020, we need women’s empowerment more than ever.
According to UNICEF India and World Bank data, India counts among the highest number of maternal deaths worldwide. India witnesses 45,000 maternal deaths every year, coming to an average of one maternal death every 12 minutes.
Unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths in India. Researches have shown that half the pregnancies in India are unintended and about a third result in abortion. Only 22% of abortions are done through public or private health facilities.
So let’s talk about the recent legislative changes in India that could change this.
Three laws have been approved by the Cabinet on women’s health in 2019 - 2020.
The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill;
The Assisted Reproductive Technology Regulation Bill; and
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Amendment Bill have all been approved.
According to the Union government, “Taken together, the three proposed legislations create an environment of safeguards for women’s reproductive rights, addressing changing social contexts and technological advances.”
On Wednesday, the Union Cabinet approved the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2020, and the other two stand approved by the Union Cabinet, pending introduction in the House.
In a recent press release, the government called the ART Regulation bill “historic” for the welfare of women in the country. It also stated that the other two Bills are “path-breaking steps to protect women’s reproductive rights”.
How true is this? Let’s break down what these Bills do.
The Surrogacy Regulation Bill 2020 creates an absolute ban on commercial surrogacy in India. It also provides for legal, “ethical” surrogacy, only to Indian married couples, Indian origin married couples, and Indian women who are widows or divorcees.
There is no provision to avail surrogacy for single, unmarried women. Single men - unmarried, widowed or divorced - are completely excluded. There is no provision whatsoever for prospective transgender parents, or gay and lesbian parents who would want to opt for a gestational surrogate. It’s almost funny, because these are the people who would traditionally be most likely to opt for surrogacy.
India also has a burgeoning ‘surrogacy tourism’ happening, with foreigners contributing to this shadow economy. The government alludes to this in the above-mentioned press release, stating “India has become one of the major centres of this global fertility industry, with reproductive medical tourism becoming a significant activity.”
But with the exclusion of foreigners from availing of surrogacy in India, and with the absolute ban on commercial surrogacy, this will also come to a complete stand-still. The alternative for foreign couples, and Indians excluded from surrogacy? Other forms of Assisted Reproductive Technologies.
Which brings us to the Assisted Reproductive Technologies Bill, 2020.
Approved by the Union Cabinet last Wednesday, this law seeks to regulate clinics that provide any kind of service related to reproductive assistance - like In-vitro fertilisation, artificial insemination, and even assisted surrogacy.
The point of this Bill is to prove “safe and ethical” reproductive procedures to infertile couples.
Inito, a medical technology research company based in Bangalore, has found that around 10 - 15 per cent of married couples in India face infertility. This comes to about 27.5 million couples in India alone.
In response to the obvious demand, ART labs have cropped up all over the country, offering services like gamete donation, intrauterine insemination (IUI), IVF, intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and gestational surrogacy.
The ART Bill - quite simply - seeks to set up state boards and authorities to regulate these clinics. It also puts on paper punishment for people practicing sex selection, the sale of human embryos, and those running rackets with these unlawful practices. It creates a legal framework to control embryo transfers, sperm banks, and IVF centres.
Smriti Irani - the Minister for Women and Child Development - said after the Cabinet meeting, that “This Bill signifies that India has decided to respect reproductive rights of women”, adding that 2020 is ushering the “decade of Indian women”.
But how does a Bill aimed at helping infertile couples, safeguard the rights of women?
Where are the women centric policies that India so desperately needs?
What happens to a woman’s agency, outside the institution of marriage?
What of single women, of lesbian women, of transgender women?
The only Act that seems aimed directly at women is the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Amendment Bill.
Here, we finally see hope.
At the start of this month, it was announced that India would soon have one of the world’s most liberal abortion laws. Approving amendments to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971; the cabinet looked to strengthen women’s reproductive rights and prevent unsafe abortions.
Under the old Act, there are four situations under which a legal abortion is performed:
- If continuation of the pregnancy poses any risks to the life of the mother or to her physical or mental health
- If the foetus has any severe abnormalities
- If pregnancy occurred as a result of failure of contraception (but this is only applicable to married women)
- If pregnancy is a result of sexual assault or rape
This can only be performed up to the 20th week of pregnancy.
Also, if the abortion is to take place within the first trimester (up to 12 weeks of conception), the woman only needs one doctor to sign off. However, if she exceeds the 12-week bar (from 12 to 20 weeks), she needs two doctors to sign-off.
The 2020 Bill highlights the importance of safe, affordable, accessible abortion services to women who need to terminate pregnancy under certain specified conditions.
The MTP Bill brings about two major changes: One, for special categories of women, the upper limit of when they can avail of an abortion has been made 24 weeks, instead of 20 weeks.
The second change is on who makes up these special categories.
The categories for legal abortion now include survivors of incest, differently abled women, and minors, in addition to the pre-existing categories.
The considerations taken into account will be the need for abortion on humanitarian, social, therapeutic and eugenic grounds.
How does this help the women of India?
According to the WHO, between 2010 and 2014, on an average, 56 million abortions were induced, globally, every year. The proportion of unsafe abortions was significantly higher in developing countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, compared to developed countries, the WHO said.
Restrictive abortion laws means more unsafe, unregulated abortions.
Better regulations, from a more liberal legal framework means safer women.
So does this law help women? Absolutely.
Can it do better than this? Perhaps.
We could start by making sure all women come under the protection of the Bill.
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