As the inquest into the death of Savita Halappanavar continues in Ireland, it is time for India to look at reform of its own abortion laws

Six months ago Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital after she was refused an abortion despite “real and substantial risk” to her life. While there has been anger and calls for changes to abortion laws in Ireland it has also been a time for introspection in India on the issue of abortion. There are several reasons for Indians to have looked within before going the whole hog in campaigning against a faulty system that caused a needless death.

Several thousand abortion rights protesters march through central Dublin in November. Pic: AP.

For starters, India and its people do not take adequate care of mothers and female children. The indignation at the completely preventable death of 31-year-old Savita thus needed to have been two-pronged – with the main focus being on assessing the ‘homework’ that India needed to do itself.

It took India a quarter of a century after securing independence to make abortion legal. In August 1971, abortion – under medical supervision – became legal when Parliament passed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act). The government – and lawmakers from the Opposition – acted on the recommendations of an official committee which saw it as an essential tool for population control and not as a means of giving women control over their lives.

In the past four decades not much has changed for the average Indian woman. On the contrary, advances in medical technology have made the world a more precarious place for girls in Indian society as the demand for sex-selective abortions rises. Despite legal impediments new technological breakthroughs and little enforcement of the law have made sex determination of foetuses common practice – so much so that it is the single biggest cause of India’s gender imbalance.

The campaign in India for change in Ireland’s abortion laws and securing legal accountability for Savita Halappanavar’s death may also comes from a sort of anti-west sentiment that prevalent in India. There is certainly a tendency to highlight the shortcomings of Western countries while similar deficiencies in the Indian system are ignored.

The issue is also a very emotive one. An Indian woman lost her life because the law prevented a termination even though the medical opinion was that it would save her life. But the debate in India to utilise the incident and reignite the demand for relaxing Indian abortion laws has been muted. Under Indian laws abortions are allowed only up to 12 weeks after conception under normal circumstances. Thereafter, a woman can be allowed to abort up to 20 weeks of her pregnancy, but only for medical reasons and with testimony of doctors. In February this year the statutory National Commission of Women recommended to the Union health ministry allowing abortions till 24 weeks of pregnancy. So far there has been no further progress on the issue.

There was a well reported case in 2008 when a woman went to the Bombay High Court in the 24th week of her pregnancy wanting to be allowed to abort her foetus as it was detected to be suffering from a congenital heart defect. There also has been an occasion when permission was sought for a mentally ill woman being allowed to abort after the permissible period.

The irony is that at a time when the inquest into Savita Halappanavar’s death is under way in Ireland, there is stony silence on abortion reform in India.