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Mainstream, VOL LX No 29, New Delhi, July 9, 2022

Upholding Abortion Rights: Top-down Approach Needed | Indranil De

Friday 8 July 2022

by Indranil De *

The recent decision of US Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling restores the ability of states to pass laws prohibiting abortion. Abortion will soon become illegal in a large number of states. It erases the constitutional right of women to opt for abortion. This has direct implications on women’s ability to make choices and their empowerment. Women might have to travel other liberal states for abortion increasing cost and time. They may have to depend on illegal termination of pregnancy which is potentially dangerous for women’s health. Abrogation of abortion rights may have direct consequences on women’s workforce participation. Thus, it can aggravate poverty and widen inequality affecting the most vulnerable communities in a developed country like US.

Legal actions banning abortion may be followed by many other countries due to popular political considerations reversing the downslide of population growth and gains in women’s empowerment. The consequences may be more dangerous in developing countries. The recently published report by United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), Seeing The Unseen, illustrates some startling facts about unintended pregnancy [1]. The higher the socio-economic development the lower the incidence of unintended pregnancy across countries. Furthermore, unintended pregnancy is positively related to gender inequality. Hence, the backward communities are more likely to get impacted if abortion is prohibited. Rates of unintended pregnancy is lower in countries where abortion is legally allowed on socio-economic grounds or on request. In the absence of legal avenues, women may depend on unsafe means of termination of pregnancy. Unsafe abortion contributes to 4.7-13.2 percent of maternal deaths in the world.

 The major setback of withdrawal of abortion rights is disempowerment of women. Society accepts three major roles of women: reproduction, production and community managing work. The reproductive role of women includes childbearing as well as other unpaid household work. Production work is carried out by women against monetary returns. Community managing work is based on goods and services provided for collective consumption, such as limited period public tap water supply. Reproductive and community managing works are seen as natural work of women, but they are not valued explicitly. Men, on the other hand, has no role in reproductive work as per society’s norm. Men take more of community leadership roles, rather than community managing work. Most of the men’s work are valued directly through paid remuneration. This sexual division of labour is the root cause of women’s subordination and disempowerment.

Due to the distinction of nature of work between men and women any planning or policy that is gender blind may harm women negatively. Hence, policies should consider women’s gender needs. Caroline O. N. Moser, an erstwhile professor at London School of Economic and gender development specialist at the World Bank, conceptualized two types of gender need of women: practical gender needs and strategic gender needs [2] (Moser, 1989). Practical gender needs cater to works in the domestic arena like childbearing, or income-earning activities or works regarding community level basic services. Fulfilling these needs improves women’s welfare but at the same time implicitly accepts the sexual division of labour. Programmes of Department of Women and Child Development, Government of India, like Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS), satisfy women’s practical gender needs.

On the contrary, the strategic gender needs of women cater to the women’s requirement to overcome their subordinate position. One needs to challenge the sexual division of labour to address the strategic gender needs. This approach is to ensure equity between men and women through positive discrimination in favour of women, if necessary. To integrate women in the overall economic growth and development, Women in Development approach was adopted by international aid agencies and United Nations. It attempts to rectify the limitations of welfare approach that satisfies women’s practical gender needs only. However, since equity approach needs to challenge existing social norms their success across countries has been limited. The actions for equity approach have been primarily top-down, with little support from the bottom. Conversely, the welfare approach which meets women’s practical gender needs is politically safe.

Family planning is considered under the broader ambit of welfare approach. It does not typically recommend abortion as a method, rather emphases on contraception use. Women’s abortion rights directly challenge gender norms and women’s sole reproductive responsibilities. Hence, it may not get full support of the masses. A recent poll by Reuters/Ipsos reveal that more than half of the respondents opined that abortion should be legal in some cases but illegal in others [3]. As in case of other strategic gender needs, abortion rights should have been upheld by the states or guaranteed constitutionally.

Gender inequality is on the higher side in India as per the UNPF (2022) report. Women’s disempowerment as well as unintended pregnancy is higher in India. In India, 62 per 1000 women aged between 15-49 encounter unintended pregnancy. The same number is higher at 71 women in Pakistan. On the contrary, it is much lower at only 20 in Spain, 35 in United States and 30 in United Kingdom. Access to facilities for safe abortion should be provided to terminate pregnancy. Unsafe abortion contributes to 4.7-13.2 percent maternal deaths worldwide. Yokoe et. al. (2019) classifies 67 percent abortions in India as unsafe. [4]

In India, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Act 2021 provides expanded scope of termination of pregnancy over and above the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. Safe and legal abortion is possible for an extended period on critical medical ground. It legalizes termination of pregnancy of unmarried women for failure of contraceptive method or device. India should be able to restore her achievements rather than fall prey to regressive populist demands. In the past the Supreme court of India has declared Sabarimala Temple’s custom of prohibiting women in their ’menstruating years’ from entering as unconstitutional. Despite widescale public protest the state government of Kerala went ahead to implement the ruling. With a top-down action it has addressed women’s strategic gender needs. It is important that institutions take leadership position rather than relent to public pressure. The states of US should take a more progressive stand. Abortion rights should be established by top-down approach, while it may face resistance from the bottom.

(Author: Indranil De, Associate Professor, Institute of Rural Management Anand)

Views are personal

Reference

  • Moser, C. O. (1989). Gender planning in the Third World: meeting practical and strategic gender needs. World development, 17(11), 1799-1825.
  • Yokoe, R., Rowe, R., Choudhury, S. S., Rani, A., Zahir, F., & Nair, M. (2019). Unsafe abortion and abortion-related death among 1.8 million women in India. BMJ global health, 4(3), e001491.
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