Safe abortion is legal in India since 1971 (Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act) and now up to 24 weeks, after which it can still be availed under a set of circumstances including complicated pregnancies, teen pregnancy, failure of contraception, rape cases, etc., to be decided by a team of medical professionals assigned by the state. Due to mixed messages that emerged out of social norms, misrepresentation in media, unawareness, cultural appropriation, etc., the larger belief remained that abortion was illegal altogether which is not true.
Abortion is almost always covered as a socio-political issue, rather than a healthcare matter which largely affects the mindset of people in a way that even today, people choose to be indifferent to the fact that abortion is legal and is an individual’s right. The narrative is almost always about villainising the abortion seeker as a ‘murderer’, for instance and not on the bodily rights and autonomy of the individual.
It, therefore, becomes pertinent for medical practitioners, policymakers and media professionals to feature personal stories (featured with consent) to “humanise” the issue. The personal experiences of opting for safe abortions will shift the focus away from stigmatising the process and otherising the seekers to instead focus on the autonomy and personal dignity of the people. It also simultaneously will help to actively work to support people who are willing to tell their stories in the media. It is also important that journalists quote actual healthcare experts in abortion coverage for a better understanding from health perspective.
Progressive media coverage should use imagery that emphasises abortion as a reproductive healthcare, or highlights the importance of bodily autonomy, instead of disparaging visuals of a child (which in itself is misleading) being snipped away, for instance.
Media coverage should focus on the narratives around the complexities of being denied abortion experiences, including among adolescents, rape victims and married women with children. To counter irrational beliefs, reproductive health professionals and supporters should emphasise upon the safety of abortion and the right to bodily autonomy in all of their discussions and how unsafe abortions can result in serious infection, future infertility, sepsis, bowel injury, internal injuries, and even death in extreme cases. Abdominal massages, drinking herbal concoctions and inserting sticks in the vagina are hugely dangerous common methods that many resort to, to terminate unwanted pregnancies, according to this January 2018 article in The Lancet, a medical journal.
Media can be a co-worker industry in the fight for bodily autonomy within the context of reproductive rights. Yet, even progressive media inadvertently pick up and repeat anti-abortion myths, use sensationalising language and sensitive imagery as per the interest of editorial/production board.
The focus of news reports should not be solely on the laws surrounding abortion, which are overwhelmingly cis-heteronormative, referring only to cisgender women and not to people of other gender identities. This also calls for the mandatory establishment of Medical Boards in every state and Union Territory that rely on certain criteria for abortion approval, which may cause delays in the procedure. Further, people living in rural areas have higher chances to find these Medical Boards inaccessible. If these wide variety of issues surrounding people’s reproductive health are raised by the media platforms, there is a better possibility of reducing stigma around abortions.
Progressive media coverage should also use imagery that enlists safe abortions as viable and accessible reproductive health service (such as images of medical professionals or abortion pills) and highlights the point of freedom to individual’s reproductive choice. Media coverage should rather emphasise on the complexities of abortion experiences of teens, trans people, rape victims and married women with children, in a sensitive way that does not look at these as content for trauma porn or in a voyueristic light.
Similarly, policymakers must recognise that news sources alone will not provide an adequate understanding of the abortion issue in legislation, and that it is the need of the hour to seek out trusted research institutions and policy intermediaries to help fill the knowledge gap left by dominant media coverage. According to the Abortion Act, a medical board must be established after 24 weeks to assess if any significant foetal abnormalities merits termination of the pregnancy. As a result, the abortion seeker is left at the behest of the medical board for the approval the termination of her pregnancy, thus putting her at risk of being denied abortion on “moral grounds” determined by the board’s bias.
“Lack of investment in terms of money, manpower, technology is the main hurdle towards safe and accessible abortion services. We need dedicated 24*7 abortion and contraceptive services in every district of India. This will change the face of women’s health in India. Unsafe abortion is a major contributor to maternal mortality leading deaths of young girls and women whom we are losing too soon. Remember each death due to unsafe abortion or unwanted pregnancy is a completely preventable death of an otherwise prefectly healthy young girl or woman who had her whole life ahead of her,” says Somya Gupta, a Delhi based obstetrician/gynecologist.
She further adds, “Our focus should shift to how to provide girls and women access to best and free contraceptive and abortion services so that they can avoid unplanned pregnancies and STDs. Abortion articles should avoid using words that add to stigma attached to sex and abortion. Healthcare journalists are better suited to write about abortion as they can differentiate between scientific and unscientific data related to abortion.”
There are several recommendations for reporters, producers and writers in media to improve their coverage of abortion to humanise the issue – they should consult medical specialists and base their articles on the understanding that pro reproductive-choice policies enjoy majority support and to avoid deploying inflammatory anti-choice rhetoric without delivering contextual relevance.
In order to enhance the accuracy and objectivity of media coverage in an emotionally charged argument, they should henceforth, mindfully engage using terms such as “abortion-rights advocates” and “reproductive choices” instead of phrases that insinuate criminality such as “opponents of life”, “No to Motherhood” etc.
Featured image source: Hillel Steinberg/Flickr