Using data from the National Family Health Survey of 1992–1993 and the individual reproductive histories of a cross-section of 70 women from rural Tamil Nadu, this paper exposes the limited extent to which women in India have been able to achieve their reproductive intentions and the failure of health services to meet their considerable reproductive health needs. Of the 70 women, 69 had been unable to achieve their reproductive intentions, not only non-users of contraception but also ever-users, and all 69 had an unmet need for reproductive health services. Sterilisation is often the first and only method of contraception taken up and only after a series of wanted, mistimed and unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, induced abortions and neonatal and infant deaths. Women who wanted to have more children than they were able to were also found. Given the paradigm policy shift in India from promoting fertility reduction only to meeting women's reproductive and sexual health needs, a more useful concept for measuring ‘unmet need'’ for services in programme planning is required, one such as the HARI index, that would capture the extent to which individual women are achieving their reproductive intentions in good health. Without this, the same problems will only recur in younger women.