India records a whopping 5.7 million illegal abortions every year and over 80 per cent of pregnant women do not get hygienic antenatal care, say experts.
"Every year 6.7 million abortions take place in India but the sad part is that 5.7 millions are illegal. The place and technique used in most of the illegal cases are unsafe and unhygienic," said Sudha Tewari, President of Parivar Seva Sanstha, an NGO working closely with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
"The result is obvious - India has a steep maternal mortality rate of 498 per 100,000 women, which is very high as compared to other countries," Tewari said. She said her organisation carried out 15 percent of the legal abortions in the country.
The NGO has 43 clinics in 12 states and running advocacy programmes in 22 states. Adopting birth control measures could help save the lives of some 27,000 women every year, she said.
According to UNICEF, only 15 percent of mothers receive complete antenatal care. In rural areas, 75 per cent of births still take place at home, mostly without any skilled help to ensure a safe delivery.
Puneet Bedi, a leading foetal medicine expert, quoting records of the Delhi government, said only 700 out of the registered 1,800 ultrasound clinics in New Delhi submitted monthly reports mandated under the PNDT (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act.
Bedi urged strong action to curb illegal abortions especially of female foetuses in order to maintain the male-female sex ratio.
The sex ratio in India has been declining for several decades. According to the 2001 census, the adult sex ratio is 933 women per 1,000 males. The child sex ratio is 927 girls per 1,000 male children.
"Strict regulation and stringent punishment are two major points that both the government and those working closely with it should keep in mind," BediBedi said.
Quoting a survey by Parivar Seva Sanstha, Tewari said that 25 per cent of all pregnancies in India were "unwanted" and that of the "180 million couples as many as 28.4 million had an unmet need for contraception".
Tewari, who is also the head of Advocating Reproductive Choices (ARC), a conglomerate of NGOs working in the field of reproductive health, said the acceptance of various contraceptive methods was still not widespread.
"While less than 50 per cent of women use oral contraceptives in India, the use of intra uterine devices (IUD) is a meagre 1.6 per cent as compared to over 40 percent in China," she pointed out.
She said ARC, which has 29 member organisations including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, will launch campaigns to create awareness about oral contraceptive pills and would take up with the Health Ministry the issue of introducing injectable contraception.
"India must expand the number of contraceptive methods to stop unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions," she said.
ARC is funded by the international Packard Foundation and has technical support from the World Health Organisation and the UN Population Fund.