On Monday, The Politico, an American political journalism portal published a recently-leaked draft majority option. It revealed that the conservative-governed U.S. Supreme Court was planning to overturn by vote the current abortion law framework, through which one could terminate a pregnancy until foetal viability.
This current framework, which is dependent on pregnancy trimesters, was the result of a precedent-setting case over 50 years ago. In 1970, Norma McCorvey, a 22-year-old waitress in Texas, who had already had two children, decided she wanted an abortion. Texas law had said abortion was illegal unless the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life. Under the pseudonym Jane Roe, McCorvey challenged this, filing a lawsuit against the state district attorney, Henry Wade, claiming that these laws were unconstitutional. Around the same time, in India, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 came into being, which allowed for the termination of pregnancy up to 20 weeks by registered medical professionals; the act was amended in 2021 to extend the upper limit to 24 weeks.
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Back in Texas, the district court ruled in McCorvey's favour, but with the state going on appeal to the US Supreme Court, a sort of balance had to be reached. The final result of Roe vs Wade had since helped generations of women in all 50 states of the US, allowing them the choice to terminate a pregnancy until foetal viability. In the context of the leak published by The Politico, if this framework is overturned, given the absence of federal (or central) law, individual states would be free to legitimise or delegitimise abortion. Expert say this could mean that abortion could become illegal in nearly half of the US, including Alabama, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
Never an easy decision
The pro-life vs pro-choice debate is likely to be an unending one in a world that still continues to be shaped by the politics of piety and patriarchy, and legal systems inherently skewed against the most vulnerable.
On the one hand — and this is what I am more inclined to agree with — access to safe abortion is, first and foremost, a fundamental human right allowing women to make a decision about their bodies. Unintended pregnancy, as we all know, can lead to maternal mortality, abuse and neglect of unwanted children, additional stress on the healthcare system and an overall poorer quality of life.
On the other, at the 6–8-week mark, when most women discover that they are pregnant, the zygote is already an embryo with a slowly-developing heart, on its way to becoming a foetus. The violence of the termination process, in an age which sees taking another life as unforgivable under most circumstances, is not something that can or should be taken flippantly. It doesn’t matter where you stand on this. Abortion is an intrusive, painful, difficult process that comes with physical risks and emotional distress; no woman thinks of an abortion unless it is the best possible decision for her under a particular set of circumstances.
Sex education, better access to contraceptives and reproductive healthcare, counselling—all these things will go a long way towards preventing pregnancy in the first place and should, of course, be worked on. Having said that, the hard truth is also this—this isn’t an overnight process, and unwanted pregnancies aren’t going to stop happening in the near future.
Why women should have the choice
In India, as a 2019 National Health Survey pointed out, less than one out of 10 men agree to use condoms, with the onus of contraception falling primarily on women who end up often undergoing the irreversible process of sterilisation, to prevent pregnancy. In South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of rape in the world—132.4 incidents per 100,000 people, according to a 2020 article published by The Conversation, “over half (54.4%) of the participants who had experienced sexual violence reported an unintended pregnancy.” And in the Philippines, where birth control is often priced too high for poorer women and abortion is illegal, with no exceptions, teen pregnancies have been soaring post the pandemic, with many of these young mothers below 15 years of age.
Therefore, let us be clear on this: whatever your feelings about abortion are—and yes, you are allowed to be angry, sad or uncomfortable with the idea, especially if you are female and have to make that decision—making them illegal is, in no way, going to stop them from happening. Instead, it simply reduces access to safe abortion.
The back-alley butcher is not just a tired trope of Victorian novels; it is the frightening reality for an estimated 25 million women. Just in March this year, a UN report has established that the proportion of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion is as great as 68%, even among countries that altogether prohibit abortion. A World Health Organization report, published in November 2021 corroborates this number: 6 out of ten unwanted pregnancies end in induced abortion. It adds that nearly 45% of these abortions are unsafe. “4.7%-13.2% of maternal death can be attributed to unsafe abortion,” says the report.
In the US, if Roe vs Wade is overturned, this number will likely go up.
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As a woman who has always had the privilege of making life decisions based on the knowledge that I have access to safe abortion, whether I choose to exercise it or not, my opinion is this: every woman in the world deserves to have this choice. And since the burden of childcare falls on her and not religious institutes or legal bodies or the State—all those institutions driving the abortion debate—it is simply not their decision to make.