India

What a landmark ruling on abortion will mean for women in India

abortion law women in India

Women in India will now have access to life-saving reproductive healthcare, regardless of marital status. Image: Unsplash/Belle Maluf

Dhwani Nagpal
Content and Partnerships Specialist, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum
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  • India's Supreme Court ruled that all women, regardless of marital status, have the right to access abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
  • The judgment expands access to essential healthcare, which will lead to a decrease in unsafe abortions and resulting deaths.
  • But the ruling could also have wider ramifications for women in India by paving the way for economic equality.

A landmark ruling on abortion by India’s Supreme Court could pave the way for economic equality and reduce health inequity for women.

On September 29, 2022, the Indian Supreme Court released a judgment stating that all women, regardless of their marital status, have the right to safe and legal access to abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Previously, single women were limited to 20 weeks.

The judgment stressed on how the stigma against unmarried women and intimate partner violence can lead to a chilling effect when it comes to the provision of and access to essential reproductive health facilities.

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It emphasised that criminal law is not the appropriate tool to “interfere with the domain of personal autonomy”, thereby codifying a woman’s right to choose and bodily autonomy as a part of her “personal liberty”.

This is essential in a country where women are stereotyped and discriminated against due to their reproductive abilities, which are used to deny them the same opportunities as men.

Moreover, out of the 121 million unplanned pregnancies in the world, one in seven of these takes place in India, which illustrates the extent to which a lack of family planning exists in the country, and the impact that it has on women.

unintended pregnancy rate gender inequality index women in India
Correlation between unintended pregnancy rate 2015–2019 and gender inequality index, 2019. Image: UNFPA

Every woman has a right to life-saving healthcare

In a world where there has been a considerable backsliding of women’s reproductive rights, this is a landmark judgment, as it allows for not just a recognition of fundamental rights of those with the reproductive abilities, but also creates a conducive environment to foster safe and legal access to reproductive health.

In India, nearly 67% abortions are unsafe, leading to around eight deaths every day. The reasons for this are a lack of awareness on reproductive health and agency, stigma around premarital relationships and pregnancy outside of marriage, as well as restrictions in legal access to abortion services.

According to the UN Population Fund, family planning and safe, legal abortion are crucial tools to prevent maternal death, and to “make pregnancy an aspiration not an inevitability”.

This judgment by the Indian Supreme Court expands access to essential healthcare, and ensures that women, regardless of their marital status have access to life-saving reproductive healthcare facilities, which will lead to a decrease in unsafe abortions and resulting deaths.

Health equity leads to economic prosperity for all

According to research conducted by Brookings, there is a causal link between access to abortion and economic prosperity for women.

Therefore, this judgment not only has an impact on mental and physical health outcomes for women, but also encourages economic prosperity by emphasizing freedom of choice and breaking down the notion that all women are destined for motherhood and domesticity, even against their will.

The number of working women in India dropped from 26% in 2010 to 19% in 2020, according to World Bank data, while almost 90% of Indian women are now reported to be “shut out” from the labour market.

Almost 90% of women in India are now reported to be “shut out” from the labour market.
Almost 90% of women in India are now reported to be “shut out” from the labour market. Image: World Bank

Women in India are also far more likely to lose their jobs than men, and one of the biggest reasons for this is the burden that unwanted marriage and motherhood poses for them, along with the stigma that working mothers have to face.

A judgment that reiterates a woman’s right to family-planning also addresses the root causes for the deep labour market inequality that exists between men and women in India.

The Bloomberg study also suggests that eradicating the 58% point employment gap between men and women in India will expand India’s GDP by $6 trillion by 2050 – and this judgment is a very important step towards the economic emancipation of women and the subsequent growth of the economy.

Violence against women in India pushes them out of the labour market

The judgment also acknowledged marital rape as a criminal form of violence against women – which is historic in a country where despite 83% of women having reported their husband’s as being perpetrators, marital rape remains legal.

In a country where one in three women suffer from intimate-partner violence, but only one in 10 women report these crimes to authorities or healthcare professionals, this ruling will also help break the stigma that exists around unwanted pregnancies caused by sexual violence by a partner, and create a safer environment for women to make informed reproductive choices.

This is exceedingly important, as sexual violence has a direct impact on women’s mental health, their subsequent productivity at the workplace, and by extension, their wages, which pushes them to leave the labour market.

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Sexual violence also affects women’s earnings by impacting their perceived sense of safety at the workplace, and around male colleagues and superiors. Research on the topic suggests that the threat of victimization, and the negative impacts, both mental and physical, of sexual violence on women are a huge determinant in a woman’s choice to work.

Therefore, this judgment by the Indian Supreme Court does not only have major implications for the human rights of women in India, but also sets the legal groundwork to ensure that a conducive environment for women is created, where their access to the labour market is unimpeded by patriarchal frameworks that restrict them into certain gendered roles.

This judgment states that: “An abortion is a carefully considered decision taken by a woman who fears that the welfare of the child she already has, and of other members of the household that she is obliged to care for with limited financial and other resources, may be compromised by the birth of another child.”

This perfectly encapsulates the economic aspect and cost of childbirth, and just as how any human has the right to evaluate the different aspects that impact their economic prosperity and well-being, so should a woman with regards to her reproductive abilities and choices.

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