As we know, pregnancy is usually celebrated in Indian society and is considered a blessing and especially so, abortion remains a tricky subject and has long been considered a taboo.
Abortion has been legal in India for past 50 years under certain circumstances with the introduction of Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 – “It can be performed until 24 weeks pregnancy after Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act amendment 2021 comes in force by notification in Gazette of India with notification of formation of Medical Termination of Pregnancy Amendment 2021 rules and regulations.” Until then, abortion law in India allowed termination of pregnancy till 20 weeks. The latest amendments to the MTP act further increase the upper gestation limit for termination of pregnancies under special conditions and aim to improve access to safe and quality services for women.
When one looks at abortion in the global context, it is true that Indian women have not had to come on the roads in their struggle for their legitimate right to abortion like a few other nations, yet a pro-choice discussion is still a utopian concept. Especially if one was to look at India media and reporting on and around abortion, it is almost always covered as a political issue, rather than a matter of healthcare. It can be observed that most of the reportage spikes around the legislations and litigation around abortions or when extreme cases grab media attention.
If we see abortion coverage in the recent past in any leading media platforms, it relies largely on political magniloquence and rarely consists of contextualised content with medical research, expert’s opinions or real-life abortion stories. These instead contain straightforward language as a matter of political opinion, written mostly by lifestyle journalists or general assignment writers rather than trained health reporters: this matters as they are less likely to reference a medical expert or to include medical research than health writers, and fail to include those directly affected by abortion & medical professionals; thereby, media rarely ground their coverage in the science of abortion.
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Historically and to an extent, even in present times, the media focused on abortion only in the context of gruesome court cases. As a matter of fact, most of our knowledge about abortion’s history though media, comes from extreme cases such as forced abortions that resulted in a health hazard, unsafe abortion practices turning to life threatening problems, rape victims denied abortion or the difficulties of a single parent, etc.
Untill a few years ago, mainstream media have largely contributed to its stigmatisation, with the major use of negative language and discursive associations; atop thrusting aside key perspectives such as those of presenting abortion as a positive and legitimate choice. According to research by Purcell et. al (2014) on Stigmatisation of Abortion, “The theme of controversy, sensationalism and morality addresses the way in which language choices and sensationalist framings perpetuate abortion stigma, and normalise a moralising stance towards it. The abortion risks theme addresses the ways in which abortion is constructed both as emotionally and physically risky.”
“Since a majority of Indian population picks their lessons from films, societal stigma around abortion is deep rooted, Bollywood is regressive when it comes to advocating for a woman’s right to abortion or even disinterest in children, and the conversations around termination of pregnancy always boils down to let’s not kill the child or shaming the women, be it in movies like Zeher, Salaam Namaste, Sultan or even a recent supposedly woke one – Mimi,” says Zarafshan Shiraz, a Delhi based Senior Content Producer (lifestyle) from Hindustan Times.
Although the choice of denying motherhood is now a common occurrence in most Hindi films and television shows, it easily draws negative implications for people who have abortions. However, the point that being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy can harm someone’s well-being is largely missing in Indian films/shows.
Although, Indian media frequently speak about ‘female foeticide’ in the context of sex-selective abortions where sex-selection is a by-product of discriminatory cultural norms; coverage in such scenarios are focused on sex-determination and sex-discrimination, and not on the theme of abortion.
Headlines also play a key role in matters like these. Short catchy phrases like “bachcha girana” or “zindagi ke crossroads” fit much more easily than long explanatory formulations like “abortion-rights advocates” or “bodily autonomy for everyone” or “reproductive freedom.” And if these headlines are not written carefully, they carry the potential to oversimplify and even distort a sensitive complex issue.
Even if the issue is addressed in the media, another common problem in abortion-related reports and articles is the use of inaccurate images or ill-informed imagery, such as heavily pregnant bellies, or fetuses detached from bodies, scissors in dominant frame over fetuses, etc. Most of the Hindi/Urdu articles included emotionally-charged phrases such as “jeevan ka ant” “jeev hatya” “bacha girana” “bachche se chhutkara chahte the” “premi jode ne kaise diya hatya ko anjaam” “khilaayi abortion ki dawah, gunah ka khulaasa” “behad sharmnaak vardaat” “haml giraane” etc.
Without a doubt, the language used by mainstream media reinforces perceptions of abortion as a disgusting evil or highly controversial issue. Further, these reports rarely go on to cover facts that would provide the public with the information on abortion as a safe healthcare service, thus only adding to the stigma around abortion. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is highly personal, yet reproductive rights are often reduced to political episodes, detached from their real-world implications. Moreover, the topic is scorned upon in the worst ways, with abhorrent narratives. Together these illustrate ways in which the cultural-specific constructions of motherhood/femininity are reflected in media representations of abortion, without acknowledging gender inclusion in a broad spectrum.
Whether or not this is so, that only a small number of articles on some emerging digital media platforms have tried to create a space in which abortion could be framed positively, as some explicitly pro-choice articles have been pacing in the adjacent years of this decade. However, the frequency of such reports is quite low and are often followed by an undermining ‘but’ / ‘or’ further comment from a contradictory perspective. Substantially, the lack of focus on personalised stories and lived narratives of women and their positive experiences creates a huge void that indicates abortion is something undesirable with denigrating effects for individuals associated with it.
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On the whole, the predominant framings of abortion has been extensively negative, and mostly constructed in a way as to being at odds with the ideals of motherhood and femininity. Voices of people who have had abortions are mostly marginalised from the narrative, and their reasons for doing so are, at worst, ignored. Abortion as a legitimate choice is virtually absent from the conversation. Given the role of news media in the reproduction of societal norms, it is worthwhile to consider the influence of unfavourable depictions of abortion in the context of normative conceptions of abortion seekers and providers.
Nayla Khwaja is a freelance journalist and a SAFE Fellow (Media) at The YP Foundation, New Delhi. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Featured image source: Hillel Steinberg/Flickr