“I had just turned 26, my partner was without a job [and] I was struggling to figure out life,” said one anonymous woman in a post released on Instagram by the My Body My Choice campaign. She explains how she found out she was pregnant, after days of feeling dizzy. “What began after that was an excruciating process of figuring out how, when and where to seek an abortion.”
“My stomach would cramp all of a sudden and I’d feel the deepest sense of loss,” said another woman, describing her abortion story.
Some of the women speak about their guilt. Others describe how having an abortion changed their relationships and affected their sex lives.
It is these kinds of stories that lay out the reality of having an abortion in India. Every year, women in the country face shame and stigma, in addition to a frightening lack of information provided to them about their own bodies and reproductive systems.
Across the board—even for married women who would typically not feel as much societal shame in this regard—women in the country are exposed to a toxic narrative when it comes to their personal choices. This is despite the termination of “certain pregnancies” having been legal in India under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP), since 1971. This is a country where unsafe abortions are the third-leading cause of maternal deaths, and 80 percent of Indian women have no clue that abortion within 20 weeks is actually legal. The procedures and their aftermath continue to be shrouded with secrecy and stamped with taboo.
But there are people working to shift this change, wanting to place agency in the hands of Indian women themselves when it comes to this part of their lives.
The stories come as a facet of My Body My Choice campaign. Run by a coalition of partners, including Global Health Strategies, Youth Ki Awaaz, and Agents of Ishq, the campaign advocates for a consolidated end to all stigma surrounded abortion. Bringing together stories and fact-based information, the initiative aims to create a safe space, through which abortion can be discussed and understood openly by women in India.
Collaborating with Mumbai-based illustrator Indu Harikumar, the campaign runners released a series of drawings under the hashtag #MyAbortionStory. The crowdfunded illustrations depict how women found out about their pregnancies and everything that followed: from telling their loved ones to deciding to get a procedure to how they coped afterward. 25 women across India relayed their stories—their pain, their vulnerability, their acceptances—to Harikumar, who then created this into art.
“Unfortunately, even today, a woman’s right to decide is deliberated in parliaments the world over—reiterating the misconception that a woman can take rightful decisions only if her decision is endorsed by others,” Nidhi Dubey, Vice President of Global Health Strategies, an advocacy centre aiming to improve healthcare around the world, told VICE. “This is also where stigma stems from. A woman’s right to conceive, to abort, or to take her pregnancy to full term is her decision to make.”
The campaign, which is currently focusing on its digital presence primarily, has reached over 80 million people so far, according to Dubey. “My biggest hope for the campaign is that it gives voice to more women and girls who are too often silenced. I think including young voices in the campaign is especially important, given India’s adolescent population is booming and yet young voices and young people’s experiences are often deprioritised in policy discussions,” said Dubey. “If conversations continue to take place in whispers, policy reforms to make safe and legal abortion more accessible will remain an uphill battle.”
The campaign runners prioritise telling the stories of young people, providing a voice to those who are “often deprioritised.” The ensuing projects are colourful, honest and hard to ignore.
Take their work with Agents of Ishq (AOI), an Indian multi-media project dedicated to sex, love, and desire. My Body My Choice and AOI converged their philosophies to create a “Bollywood-style” video to tackle myths about pregnancy and abortion. Adorned with fun graphics and lighthearted language, the video was released on September 28—widely recognised as International Safe Abortion Day.
“Sex and love continue to be strongly linked to marriage—and women, despite changes, rarely get to have a lot of autonomy over their own bodies,” said Paromita Vohra, Creative Director of AOI, in an interview with VICE. “Abortion is fundamentally about women's right to choose—when to have sex and what decisions to make about pregnancy. It threatens the mindset of morality that surrounds issues of sex. We continue to talk about women primarily as wives and mothers and resist thinking of them as autonomous beings, in terms of their sexual health especially.”
The petition put forth by the My Body My Choice campaign calls for the outright termination of the MTP Act. Essentially, they believe the choice to abort should lie solely in the hands of women, without the twelve to twenty week policy in mind. They are also calling for providers becoming more women-centric in their approaches and for society to work together to end the stigma.
The many organisations behind these efforts are pushing for the end to all stigma surrounding abortions, linking deeply-entrenched societal attitudes to the frequency of unsafe abortions in the country. They point out that an abortion performed properly is one of the world’s safest medical procedures. But the termination of a pregnancy done without necessary medical standards can go quickly and drastically wrong.
“With the fear of embarrassment clouding their decision-making, many women are left with no choice but to explore discreet and clandestine options. ‘Log kya kahenge? [What will peple say?] ’ takes precedence over their own well-being and health,” explained Dubey. “‘What if confidentiality is not maintained?’, ‘What if my family or friends get to know?’ these are some unfortunate, yet dominant thoughts that women have to grapple with.”
Both Dubey and Vohra bring up that women across India are compelled to visit “quacks” or find certain pills on their own. These are all unlicensed methods and are rooted in danger.
This haunting reality is only cemented by the numbers. In 2018, it was estimated that 13 women in India die each day because of unsafe abortions.
According to a 2018 report released by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organisation dedicated to the study of sexual and reproductive health, the MTP Act was implemented in order to “protect women from the grave risks of unsafe abortion.” But the report goes on to outline that unsafe abortion procedures are, however, all too common nationwide. The institute cited that unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal mortality in the country.
Recently, health officials, doctors, and activists across the country have also pushed for an altogether more humane act. In September 2019, the Union Health Ministry submitted a petition to tweak the bill, which the Supreme Court is currently considering. The changes would ensure that abortions are made safer and more accessible—for instance, the 20-week cutoff for a procedure would be extended. Other suggested reforms would allow women to have autonomy over the procedure.
But there are certain solutions which can be attained on a grassroots level. As Vohra points out, education is the most effective method for women to understand their rights when it comes to their bodies and their choices.
“Information is necessary—it goes a long way in helping us make the right choices, and the main reason we don't have or seek information is because of shame and taboos,” she said. “This is the most effective way not just for us, but for every society.”