The Platform


Last year, women in India won a small victory when the country’s highest court ruled that, regardless of marital status, women could legally obtain an abortion up to 24 weeks.

In 1971, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act decriminalized abortion in India. Since then, the act has been amended multiple times to combat female feticide, a prevalent practice that has skewed the country’s gender ratio.

In 2021, the gestational limit for abortion was raised from 20 weeks to 24 weeks. Initially, unmarried women were excluded from this extension, but India’s highest court later ruled to include unmarried women under the same protections.

According to PBS NewsHour, the high court’s “ruling came after an unmarried woman in a consensual relationship was denied an abortion by a lower court in July because she was past 20 weeks in her pregnancy. Later that month, the Supreme Court allowed her to get an abortion up to her 24th week of pregnancy, and on Thursday extended that right to all women.”

Human rights groups and women’s rights activists applauded the decision. The high court emphasized that the law should evolve with contemporary society, shedding the notion that marriage is a prerequisite for individual rights and considering changing social norms when interpreting the law.

While abortion has been legal in India to some extent since 1971, its legalization was primarily driven by the government’s interest in curbing population growth. This ruling marks the first instance where abortion has been analyzed from a woman-centric perspective in a country with 604 million women. The World Economic Forum also highlights the link between access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion services, and economic equality. They state that the high court’s decision not only positively impacts women’s healthcare but also contributes to their economic prosperity. Additionally, the decision underscores the importance of women’s freedom of choice and rejects the notion that women are destined to be mothers.

However, expanding the right to abortion does not guarantee access to abortion services. While the high court’s decision is a step in the right direction, progress toward gender equality remains negligible, considering the fact that marital rape is still legal in India. Moreover, there are several barriers to accessing abortion, including the requirement of authorization from a medical practitioner, limited resources for lower-caste, non-binary, differently-abled, and low-income women, and a lack of reproductive health education.

Prior to the legalization of abortion, heavy criminal penalties were imposed on providers who performed the procedure without meeting the legal exemption criteria. Additionally, the burden was on the abortion seeker to prove that a legal exemption for an abortion was met before 1971. The repercussions of the pre-MTPA era’s criminalization of abortion continue to manifest as barriers faced by women who are seeking an abortion, such as informal third-party requirements and medical practitioners’ reluctance to perform the procedure.

The prevalence of certified abortion clinics, particularly in rural areas, is low. Considering that the majority of the population resides in these rural areas, the high court’s decision does not significantly impact the majority of Indian women. Furthermore, reproductive health education plays a vital role in a woman’s ability to access abortion services.

Many Indian women are unaware of the legality of abortions and the available resources for their reproductive health. This lack of awareness perpetuates the taboo surrounding abortion and sex, perpetuating the cycle of inequity in women’s healthcare. Pregnancies resulting from marital rape can also be used to manipulate women into remaining in dangerous relationships. These challenges are further exacerbated for minors, disabled women, lower-caste women, and women working in the sex industry.

Another barrier encountered by Indian women seeking abortion services is the moral judgments of service providers and family members influenced by their deeply held religious beliefs. Accessing abortion facilities is already challenging due to financial or geographic barriers, and sometimes providers may deny abortion services based on the reason for the procedure.

In theory, the high court’s decision acknowledges the importance of a woman’s right to abortion services, bodily autonomy, and overall equality. However, it fails to ensure that women can effectively exercise these rights. The majority of Indian women remain unaffected by this decision, as it does not address the inherent inaccessibility of abortions in certain areas. Physical barriers and societal attitudes continue to heavily limit abortion access in the country.

For many women in India, the new abortion ruling is merely an illusion of progress, concealing the reality of limited rights.

Pranali Jain is a senior at Seton Hall University with a double major in Diplomacy and International Relations and Economics with a minor in Arabic. She is an active member of the campus community, serving as the Co-President of Women of Diplomacy Leadership Program, the Event Chair for GirlUp SHU, and as the Staff Writer for the Diplomatic Envoy. She is also a part of the Economics Honor Society, Sigma Iota Rho International Affairs Honor Society, and the Diplomacy Cohort of the Buccino Leadership Institute. Pranali's interests include women's rights, international economics, and human rights law.