Single women get equal abortion rights
In September 2022, the Supreme Court of India ruled that single and unmarried women now have the same right to medically safe abortion as married women.
It was a watershed moment for the Indian judicial system in a society that has largely ostracised unmarried mothers as wanton women, not fit to be part of a respectable society.
A three-judge Bench consisting of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, A.S. Bopanna, and J.B. Pardiwala, clarified that it is unconstitutional to distinguish between married and unmarried women for allowing termination of pregnancy on certain exceptional grounds when the fetus is between 20-24 weeks.
A 12-year old mom
In Kolkata, Soumya Choudhuri described the story of Mita, her house help. At 11, Mita was married off to an older man in her village and became pregnant a few months later.
Soumya recalls, “The horror with which she recounted the incident stayed with me for a long time. There was an 11-year-old, who was forced into marriage and already impregnated by a man old enough to be her father. And the decision on whether or not she wanted a child (she was a child herself!), was not even hers!”
Mita revealed she had gone into labor while playing in the fields, not knowing that her water broke, or even understanding what was happening to her. She delivered a boy. In the life that followed, that 12-year-old mom tried to raise a son, not yet a teen herself, and barely out of her own childhood.
Thousands of women across India like Mita do not have a voice in the choices made for their own bodies.
Indian society abhors unwed mothers and barren women
In Projapoti Biskut, a 2017 Bengali film by Anindya Chatterjee, a fiercely independent woman Shaon (Ishaa Shah) is at odds with the traditional life that follows her arranged marriage to Antor (Aditya Sengupta). It undermined their union because even after two and a half years of marriage, the couple could not conceive.
When Shaon’s friend Parijat Mukherjee (Kheya Chattopadhyay), becomes pregnant out of wedlock, she wants to end her pregnancy, fearing social stigma. A tearful Shaon convinces her to keep the baby which she hopes to adopt. But Parijat’s boyfriend returns to take responsibility for the baby and Parijat reneges on her promise. It shatters Shaon.
In the character of Parijat, the filmmaker presents the intriguing dichotomy of a modern woman who is afraid to be a single mother, because prior to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2022, single women were excluded from abortion access in India. Her boyfriend’s return saves Parijat from the challenging task of trying to get an abortion as an unmarried woman or facing the taboo of unwed motherhood alone.
The film represents the dilemma of women in traditional Indian society which belittles a married woman who cannot conceive and stigmatizes one who bears a child out of wedlock.
Women on the significance of the ruling
Actress Samridhi Dewan says that women have every right to decide whether they want to bring a new life to the world or not. “Abortion has to be completely legal for everybody. Our body is ours and what we do with them is completely up to us. I do not think there should be any contention regarding this at all. It is every individual’s right to decide what to do with their body, and most times decide if they want to bring a new life to the world at all.”
In Kolkata, Dikshita Chomal, an advocate at the Calcutta High Court hailed the Supreme Court’s decision.
“In my opinion, the recent judgment of the Supreme Court is pragmatic and laudable since it acknowledges that woman alone has the right over her body and is the ultimate decision-maker on the question of whether she wants to undergo abortion.”
The new ruling, according to a BBC report now allows abortions for ‘survivors of rape survivors, minors, women with mental disabilities, women with fetuses that had major abnormalities and married women whose marital status had changed during the pregnancy.’
Chomal says the judgement recognizes the rights of women to end pregnancies irrespective of their age. The ruling also recognizes that relationships have evolved, and women can become pregnant by choice, irrespective of their marital status.
“Live-in relationships are now given the same status as the institution of marriage in our society; hence change in marital status ought to be interpreted as change in status of relationship. Earlier only married women were allowed to undergo abortion.”
Chomal pointed out that the court expanded the meaning of rape to include marital rape. Rape victims, irrespective of age or marital status, have a choice in terminating unwanted pregnancies.
A win for women’s rights in India
The progressive Indian ruling is a win for women’s rights in India in contrast to restrictive abortion laws trending in the US. Chomal points out that the Indian courts are becoming pro-choice and liberal towards abortion rights, in contrast to the pro-life American judiciary which overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling on abortion.
“India is gradually providing for an absolute right to abortion with reasonable judicial interference,” she concludes.
The contentious U.S. ruling allows individual states to ban or severely restrict abortion access for pregnant women before the 24–28-week mark.
US President Joe Biden called the abortion rights decision a “tragic error” and a “sad day” for the court and America
“The court has done what it has never done before, expressly taken away a constitutional right that is so fundamental to so many Americans.”