The Chhattisgarh Government was ordered by judges to immediately address allegations that women in the state lack sufficient access to safe abortion services.

Justices Navin Sinha and Rangnath Chandrakar of the High Court of Chhattisgarh at Bilaspur issued an order on July 18 in response to a petition filed last month by human rights lawyer Anubha Rastogi—with technical support from the Center for Reproductive Rights—on behalf of the National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights (NAMHHR), an alliance of civil society organizations raising awareness of maternal health as a human rights issue. The next hearing has been set for October 8.

Despite national laws and policies on abortion, notably the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971 (MTP), and regulations introduced in 2003 that prescribe a system for registering safe providers in the private sector, the Chhattisgarh government has failed to take the steps required by law to ensure practical access to safe abortion services for women in the state.  Under the National Health Mission (NHM), all government run district hospitals are required to provide first and second trimester abortion services and yet these services are not widely available. The petition argues that this consequential denial of care is in direct violation of India’s constitution, specifically the rights to health, life, nondiscrimination and equal protection under the law.

Said Melissa Upreti, regional director for Asia at the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“Every woman is entitled to access to quality health services, including safe abortion. Yet for decades the government in Chhattisgarh has neglected its legal duty to protect the health and lives of women in the state. 

Despite national health laws and policies, constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights and international obligations, the government continues to discriminate against women by denying them necessary reproductive health services—causing agony and irreparable harm to the health and lives of women in poor and marginalized communities.

The High Court must hold the government accountable for its continued failure to ensure women’s access to safe abortion services and call for immediate implementation of laws, guidelines and spending so that no woman is denied the essential medical care she needs.”

Abortion has been legal in India for over 40 years, yet more than half of all abortions are unsafe. The Chhattisgarh State Report of 2009 indicates that abortion services are not widely available in public health facilities. Additionally, the Report indicates that the limited number of facilities that do offer abortion services frequently practice antiquated, unsafe, and invasive methods. Due to the unavailability of trained abortion providers in government hospitals and licensed facilities in the private sector, many women turn to unskilled providers for abortion procedures that are both expensive and highly dangerous.

In the petition, NAMHHR is asking the High Court to direct the Chhattisgarh Department of Health to fulfill its legal obligations and effectively implement the provisions of the MTP Act, which includes the appointment of District Level Committees, as mandated by abortion regulations adopted in 2003, for ensuring the registration of abortion facilities in the private sector to meet the demand for safe services. The petition also calls for the court to penalize government officials who have failed to perform their duties under the broad legal framework of the MTP Act and the NHM, and allocate funds for the establishment of well-equipped MTP centers in rural areas.

Said Anubha Rastogi, lead lawyer in the case and an individual member of NAMHHR:

“By consistently failing to set up District Level Committees to register and issue licenses to safe abortion providers, the state government of Chhattisgarh makes a clear statement that saving women’s lives and ensuring that they have access to affordable and acceptable reproductive health care is not a priority. In a state like Chhattisgarh, where the majority of the population is tribal, this refusal coupled with other concerns such as the unavailability of blood for emergency transfusions and the prevalence of malaria and sickle cell anemia results in great harm to women’s health and even death from preventable causes.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights provided technical support to Anubha Rastogi on the Chhattisgarh petition, which was developed as part of the South Asia Reproductive Justice and Accountability Initiative (SARJAI), a partnership spearheaded by the Center. SARJAI brings together lawyers in the region to promote the use of legal accountability strategies, including litigation, to address ongoing violations of women’s reproductive rights in South Asia that result from government failure to ensure access to contraceptive information and services and access to safe abortion.