August 5, 2008

Abortion Rights in India

The question Indians are asking is: Do parents have the right to choose perfect unborn babies, or has the state overstepped its jurisdiction?

The couple Nikita and Haresh Mehta challenged a 37-year-old abortion law when doctors detected a "fair chance" of the child being born with a congenital handicap.

It would need a pacemaker from birth and the Mehtas decided they did not want the child to be born.

But Indian law does not allow abortion after 20 weeks unless there is a health risk to the mother.

The couple must now regret going to the court for a decision that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

They could have done it quietly anywhere in the thousands of rural clinics where abortions are carried out in large numbers.

A report from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a leading government institute and hospital in Delhi, reported that one-third to almost half of women have had at least one induced abortion under unsafe conditions.

Girls are considered a burden for life and sex selection leading to female foeticide is the primary reason for abortions.

It is a myth that it only happens in India's illiterate villages - middle class India is among the worst perpetrators of female foeticide as they can afford to have sonograms and other sex-determination tests.

A study by the British medical journal Lancet found that in the past 20 years India has lost 10 million girls.

Prenatal sex determination and selective abortion account for over 600,000 missing girls, while 80,000 mothers die during abortions every year.

Though there are strict laws against sex determination and illegal abortions, like almost everything in India there are ways to get around the system.

Even though ultrasound machines should be registered with government agencies, very few are. Today's machines are now so portable and easy to operate that they have proliferated every part of the country.

In Nikita's case, the state does not have the social structure to provide lifetime support to children born with congenial and terminal problems.

It is the sole responsibility of the parents who eventually endure the huge emotional and financial burden of bringing up children. So why are they forcing a decision on the parents who might have to witness the slow death of their child?

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