Anti-Abortion Movement in India: Realities and Counter Mechanisms

Jun 7, 2023 | Events

This blogpost was written by Alka Barua, Souvik Pyne and Vinitha Jayaprakasan from CommonHealth, India.

In August 2022, on the 51st anniversary of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act that legally permits abortion under specific conditions in India, a ‘March for Life’ was organised in the national capital in memory of the millions of aborted foetuses across the world. This was followed by two other organised marches in Maharashtra, observation of Day for unborn child (25th May) and announcements of many to come, including the ‘March for Life’ being an annual event. On the other hand, over the years, the rise in conservatism in the country has historically contributed to curbing sexual and reproductive rights, especially of religious, caste and gender minority groups. 

Objections to abortion were not new for the country. Decline in population of a specific religious group in a Southern state had set the ball rolling way back in 2007. However, the movement was not as aggressive and did not manifest in the public domain because of India’s socio-cultural and legal complexities. The overruling of Roe v Wade judgment in June 2022 by Supreme Court of the USA on the grounds that abortion is not a right gave a fillip to the anti-choice movement globally. India was no exception. The landmark ruling of India’s Supreme Court in September 2022 that recognised marital rape, talked about all women’s autonomy to freely exercise their reproductive rights, and the entitlement of unmarried women in a consensual relationship to safe and legal abortions further aggravated those opposed to abortion. Both these happenings spurred the anti-choice entities to intensify their efforts. They hoped that their efforts would inspire others to protest against access to abortion and succeed in revoking the MTP Act.

The anti-choice entities are trying to mobilise youth groups and bring together like-minded entities to organise public rallies, perspective building workshops, file public interest litigations, influence health system functionaries and amplify their visibility via media channels to create an anti-abortion discourse.


A visual from the March for Life in New Delhi 

These anti-choice entities cleverly misinterpret data and legal and constitutional provisions, use powerful emotive imagery, borrow arguments and justifications from other movements and co-opt the anti-sex selection agenda and disability groups to bolster their case.    


A social media poster

In India, the feminist movement has historically not been engaged in advocating for reproductive rights and choices in the context of abortion and there are multiple opportunities to foster the movement and misinterpret policies and legal stipulations. Government’s aggressive and misdirected public campaigning against sex determination has focused on induced abortions for gender-biased sex selective reasons instead of addressing the innate societal son-preference. In the course of discussions on the MTP (Amendment) Bill, 2020 in the parliament, even public representatives referred to ‘abortion as murder’. All this has led to further stigmatisation of abortion overall, generating a public perception that abortion is illegal in the country. Apprehensions of backlash that led to discontinuation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education has stifled reliable sources of information for the young and inadequate public health infrastructure has left people in certain regions with religious institutions as the only alternative source of services. Additionally, the disproportionate liberty accorded to eugenic conditions in the MTP Act and centering a protectionist approach to the adolescent sexuality discourse rather than unequivocally foregrounding the pregnant person’s request unconditionally often come in conflict with a rights-affirming narrative. Even a range of entities including large donors and philanthropies working on SRH issues exclude abortion from the discourse and inadvertently undermine access to safe abortion. Inconsistent court judgments also cloud the environment of the rights movement and embolden those against the right to safe abortion. 

CommonHealth, a coalition that advocates for reproductive rights especially right to safe abortion of marginalised population, in the course of its work, realised that it is necessary to map and counter the anti-choice movement and the support it gets. It organised a panel discussion on anti-choice movement and opposition to sexual and reproductive rights both within and outside the country. 

Discussions highlighted the potential approaches to counter such movements. Learning from countering opposition to LGBTQI rights in India has been that the battle has to be socio-legal with strong emotional value, fought on the terrain of the opposition and has to be rooted in the values enshrined in the country’s constitution. The legal battle has to be equipped with scientific and legal references including comparative jurisprudence from other countries. Experience in other regional countries has shown that opposition is not homogeneous and needs context specific efforts to counter it – to push back, engage or ignore. CommonHealth plans to frame its mitigation strategies based on these learnings as well as it’s own experience in the field and in the context of the diversity in the opposition entities, inter-linkages amongst their approaches, assessment of their direct/indirect role and the influence they wield in the movement. It aims to develop a monitoring mechanism within community, media and legal spaces to trace anti-choice entities, narratives propagated and strategies adopted.

 

 

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