Our story begins after legalization of abortions in India
India’s Family Planning programme was one of the first in the world. Though it began in 1951, it was slow to prevent the large number of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies in the country. Back then, abortion was a criminal offence. But a large number of women were resorting to terminate their pregnancies on their own or through backstreet untrained providers. This was resulting in high maternal mortalities (deaths) and morbidities. To protect the health of the women, a bold legislation, Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP) 1971, was enacted. It came into force on April 1, 1972. However, nothing much was achieved in this direction.Abortion remained shrouded in mystery and there were negative connotations to its provision by the doctors. Dr. Sudesh B. Dhal, an obstetrician gynaecologist, who had returned in 1976 from the United Kingdom after specialized training, was aghast to find that 50% of gynaecological beds in the hospitals were being occupied by women who had resorted to an abortion and were facing severe complications. Dr. Dhall decided to set up a ‘not for profit’ organization, dedicated to providing safe and affordable abortions as per the MTP Act.
Named after Dr Marie Stopes
This is how Marie Stopes Society was established in 1978. The society was named after Dr Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer in the world. The first abortion clinic called Marie Stopes Clinic was started in Delhi in 1979, followed by clinics in Amritsar and Agra.
In early 1981, when Ms Sudha Tewari, a professional manager, with a management degree from a premier management institute joined the organization, she realized that women and their families were unaware of the MTP Act and the fact that there was no illegality associated with termination of pregnancies under specific circumstances. She also realized that it was important to make the women aware of the MTP Act so that there is no fear attached to safe and legal termination of pregnancies. To spread the message, the Sanstha started holding promotional campaigns, using the mass media such as newspapers and magazines to inform people about the different provisions of the Act. The provisions included: a married/unmarried woman’s right to legal abortion if 18+ and with the consent of the guardian, if less than 18 and also with gestation up to 20 weeks. The Act covered all religions. There was considerable stigma attached to the word ‘abortion’ and therefore most leading newspapers refused to accept advertorials from the Sanstha regarding legalization of abortion and its availability at affordable rates. However, some national papers were eventually convinced and carried these educative advertisements.
More contraceptive choices
It was found that most women were resorting to abortions as a Family Planning method instead of using a contraceptive. It had become a proxy for unmet need of our women. Therefore, the organization strengthened its counselling capabilities and also increased the availability of contraception choices by adding sterilizations and IUDs to its existing methods of condoms and oral contraceptive pills. Soon injectable contraceptives were also added to its basket of Family Planning methods. The clinics began to counsel and motivate every client to voluntarily adopt contraception after the abortion procedure. This strategy was critical as chances of a pregnancy increase soon after an abortion and many women had begun to come for repeat abortions. When it was realized that women were unwilling to adopt a terminal Family Planning method as they were afraid that their children would not survive , due to the then very high Infant Mortality Rate (high IMR), the Sanstha added child survival as an important intervention, which included infant health care, immunizations, nutrition etc.
Soon, the number of clinics expanded and the Society began to do community outreach work in the rural areas, where the name Marie Stopes Society was difficult to pronounce for the rural masses. This necessitated a change in name to Parivar Seva Sanstha in the year 1982, even though the clinics continued to function under the name of Marie Stopes Clinics.