Ashwini Mhatre, 45, is anaemic and underweight, has two teenage daughters and a husband who works as a clerk in a bank. When there was no sign of her period after three months, Ashwini, who lives in a Kurla chawl, assumed her menopause had started. But, feeling anxious one day in February, she went to a doctor who said she was pregnant. She went to a nearby chemist and bought an abortion pill. By now, she was in her 18th week. The pill did not work. The only option was a surgical abortion.

“The last thing I wanted at this stage of my life, was another child. And we don’t have the finances to support another child,” she explains.

Her doctor refused to arrange an abortion, which can only be performed up to 20 weeks from conception. By now, Mhatre had crossed that marker. According to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, if an abortion needs to be carried out after the pregnancy has crossed 20 weeks, a panel of two registered practitioners needs to approve and allow the termination. Mhatre cannot simply choose not to be a mother because she doesn’t want a child, or because she cannot afford to raise it, or because she is unhappily married, or because she does not want to complicate an already difficult life. Like millions of other women, she was in a fix. Where and how could she get an abortion? Pregnancy is like a ticking-time bomb in Ashwini Mhatre’s case, already in the 22nd week of her pregnancy.

Abortion has become a buzzword suddenly all over the world. While the American politicians have been taking a call on the controversial medical procedure, and banning abortion in some states, we wonder where India stands on the issue. For many women in India, motherhood is an eventuality, not a choice. While people argue that abortion is legal in India let us understand the technicalities behind this.

Abortion in India: What the law says, and the many challenges for women

We spoke to legal expert Adnan Shaikh, who explains, “The roadblock is the overburdened courts and multiple cases which probably led to delays. There are ways in which urgent hearings can be requested and courts do allow them but not everyone has the awareness of the correct procedures. This lack of awareness is what is probably leading to delayed justice.

Shaikh informs that there have been instances wherein the Supreme Court has allowed termination of pregnancy that has gone beyond 20 weeks however, it is judged case by case and is not black and white. There are also instances where the Supreme Court of India denied permission to terminate an over-20-week pregnancy suggesting that such an abortion would amount to murder.

Adnan Shaikh further adds, “I feel educating children as well as adults about the medical termination of pregnancy act is one of the ways to ensure abortion is carried out responsibly and no one misses the ‘20 week bus’, if they are on it for any unwanted reason.”

Pointing out the legal concerns, Dr Duru Shah, Obstetrics and Gynaecology Consultant at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, points out, “If a girl under the age of 18, unmarried and pregnant is seeking abortion, then the law says it must be notified to the police. The police have to be informed about the abortion along with parents or guardians. This is disheartening as the matter of fact is the girl is worried about it hence may decide to not visit a gynaecologist for abortion.”

Unwed pregnancies and abortions still have immense social stigma attached to them. Feminist researcher, Saumya Dadoo has a differing opinion on the topic of abortion contrary to the medical and the legal viewpoints. “Many people in India believe that we have a right to abortion because of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. In reality, the law was brought in place to control the population and with no intention of giving women a right to abortion. Which is why the law requires doctors to agree to ‘allowing’ a woman to have an abortion.”

Psychiatrist Dr Jalpa P Bhuta, MD, MRCPsych (UK), DNB, Consultant Woman & Child Psychiatrist, Surya Hospital, adds, “Any woman undergoing abortion needs counselling as it is never an easy decision in terms of physical and mental health. Hence, supportive psychotherapy is required for a woman who opts for abortion due to any reason. A large percentage of women suffer from depression following an abortion and some of them are likely to suffer from guilt or anxiety for the same.”

Abortion will continue to be a grey area when it comes to feminist, medical and religious sensibilities. In spite of several laws and social campaigns, the male-female child ratio still remains skewed. So, the question we ask is, how do we in a country of such moral and societal backwardness, make use of a progressive medical procedure? Are we really that advanced to not misuse it?