Historically, the world has witnessed a myriad of events that have been exclusive of women and dismissive of their concerns and opinions. However, to assume this is a thing of the past is a fallacy. An issue demonstrating this is the infringement of female bodily autonomy by governments and individuals worldwide. Restrictive abortion rights are not uncommon today, and at their roots, they can be traced back to a flawed conception of what constitutes a human life and the significance assigned to it at a given point in time. The ambiguity of this theory coupled with religious and moral principles results in massive blowback from certain groups and organizations towards the legalization of abortion. As responsible citizens, we need to delve deeper into these arguments to conclusively register that the prerogative of abortion is essentially a unilateral decision-making process, lying entirely with the mother.
The debate surrounding this issue spans multiple decades and varies greatly across countries. In places where the general consensus is pro-abortion until a certain fetal stage, the timeline for abortions to be permissible is constantly discussed. However, our primary focus should be on the nations and states that advocate for a blanket ban of abortions, on moral, ethical, or religious grounds. To cite an example, eight out of fifty states in the USA continue to retain stringent abortion laws today. The politicians spearheading these initiatives invoke the word of God through the Bible, believing the vilification of abortion within its doctrines to be reason enough to justify their implementation. This raises an important question concerning the separation of church and state, and if it is being practiced effectively.
Similarly, in most Islamic countries with restrictive abortion access, the legislature is formed based on the criticism of abortion under the religious Sharia law, derived largely from the governing text of Islam, the Quran. Observably, in many nations, religion ultimately ends up exerting a considerable influence on important policy-making, even in cases where the legislative code explicitly prohibits this. The reasoning behind these political decisions is seldom backed by any reliable medical or scientific sources and is driven largely by personal and anecdotal information.
There are multiple countries in the world substantiating this claim, for example- (i) Egyptian law unconditionally prohibits abortion, going on to include life-threatening scenarios as well in certain cases; (ii) the Philippines decrees abortion illegal under all circumstances, (iii) Brazil allows abortion only in cases of a mortality risk or rape/incest and imposes a harsh penalty in all other cases. These legislative decisions have significant social and economical implications on the countries. 24 other countries prohibit abortion entirely, and 42 countries allow it only under an imminent threat to the woman’s life. A noteworthy fact is that according to certain analyses most of these countries have higher abortion rates than countries that have relatively lenient laws. Due to limited access to safe medical care, the mortality rate among women of reproductive age in these places is abysmally high. The impact of curbing access to safe abortions is extremely adverse, on the mothers that are subjected to carrying unintended pregnancies to term, and on the children born into conditions that are anything but conducive.
There is such an extensive array of factors to take into consideration when the decision is as defining as that of having a child – if the mother is mentally willing and able to rear a child at that point; if her financial position can accommodate caring for a child and ensures an adequate quality of life for them; and most importantly, the basal question of this decision being an independent one in absolute terms, determined solely by the woman having to undergo the process of childbirth. An issue demonstrating almost the entirety of most of these factors is adolescent/teenage pregnancy. It is a concerning plight across nations, and the situation for these young mothers in countries that restrict abortion even to teenagers is grim. It highlights some of the important problems that stem from disallowing abortion to the women that wish to opt for it. Teenagers often lack the depth of emotional maturity required to raise a child, being children themselves. As for those who the state urges to give their children for adoption, the foster care system has time and again been proven ineffective even in developed nations, and the children passing through it are compelled to lead lives brimming with numerous hardships. To forcefully subject teenagers to pregnancy and childbirth under the pretext of criminalizing abortion is to infringe their basic right to keep themselves safe and healthy. An example of another unjust situation is – in developing nations, the position of women in the workforce is relatively low, and thus, their ability to remain financially independent is compromised. In a situation where providing for oneself is a task, the burden of rearing a child should not be imposed by law. Despite these blatant difficulties, several countries impose their restrictive laws even on teenagers, assault victims and women from low-income backgrounds, paying no heed to their limitations and constraints.
Anti-abortion advocates structure their arguments around the claim that they are ‘pro-life’, and this must propel us to question them: what comprises a human life, and who is to determine that? Is it within our morality to assign a developing human life more importance than one that is already present? At what point do we prioritize the life of an unborn child over that of the mother’s? When conservative politicians draw comparisons between abortion and the ending of a human life, they are dismissing the facts brought to light by healthcare experts. Extensive medical research has provided evidence that fetuses lack the physiological capacity to experience ‘pain’ up until 24 weeks of gestation, and multiple reputed medical journals and healthcare professionals across the world share a consensus attesting that the cutoff for a fetus attaining ‘personhood’ or related viability ranges beyond 20 weeks of conception (although there is some debate surrounding this); thus, rendering the execratory ‘murder’ accusations impudent and ineffective. There is a larger exploration of the grounds for the personhood of a fetus, and if it attains the status that a general human being does at that stage. The basis for the parallel drawn by conservatives between taking a life and abortion rests on these determinations. The argument is between two contrasting perceptions of what qualifies as personhood – an ability to comprehend the world as a rational being, or the physical capacity to develop into a human being eventually. Per the former, abortion does not result in the termination of a life as a fetus cannot be assigned the status of a person, while the latter effectively likens abortion to ending a viable person’s life. Additionally, it is erroneous to assume that the idea of fetal pain be utilised as appropriate reasoning to aid in a criticism of abortion, when pain has expertly been defined as a conscious experience and not a mere response to external stimuli. Through all of this information, the most imperative conclusion is, as complex as these queries are, the onus for answering them should not lie with anybody except those that are expected to be a part of the process.
The stigmatization surrounding abortion across cultures and countries is a concern of the highest order, not only because it is an outright violation of a woman’s right to her body, but also because it has a pronounced social and economic impact on society as a whole as well. Unintended pregnancies are not isolated incidents, and neither is the widespread restriction of abortions. The absence of safe, accessible abortion care results in a list of issues – an increase in maternal mortality, inadequate facilities for children placed in foster care, unsound parenting, reduced labor force participation by women, reduced educational attainment, and thus, an overall decrease in positive societal outcomes. Citizens need to urge their governments to abandon religiously motivated policy structuring and transition to a more ethical process for their decision-making, propagating greater accountability for everyone involved.
Shivani Panigraphy is an undergraduate at Ashoka University, intending to major in Economics and Finance. Her areas of interest include gender equality, economic theory, and world politics.