The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine the constitutional validity of certain legal provisions that allow abortion only to save the woman's life or in case of abnormal fetus. The PIL says these laws violate women's right to health, "free reproductive choice" and "privacy".
The apex court has sought response of the Central government on a PIL of three women who have sought that provisions like sections 3(2) (a) and 3(2) (b) of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 be declared as "void and unconstitutional."
But what is the MTP act, and where does it stand today, 48 years after it was introduced?
The Act allows for abortion only till the 20th week and under strict guidelines and is unreasonable, arbitrary and archaic. Many top gynecologists insist that the law shouldn’t get a partial strike-down but a total smack-down.
What’s the Problem With Abortion At 20-weeks?
In 1971, when the abortion Act was formed, there were no ultrasounds or foetal monitors to give a high-tech peek at the developing fetus. But today prenatal diagnostics can determine the height, weight, size of the brain, down syndrome, congenital heart defects, kidney functioning,
The problem is that most of these abnormalities are picked up in ultrasounds only by the 20th to 24th week only and that exceeds the legal abortion ceiling.
A lot of the kidney and brain defects manifest much later than the 20th week. Sometimes the report takes 2 to 3 weeks to come and all that doesn’t leave any window for termination.Dr Duru Shah, Gynaecologist, Director, Gynaec World
Is the Health Of the Mother Compromised If She Aborts After 24 Weeks?
An abortion is risky even in the first month. For that matter, any medical procedure is but if you do it in a proper facility with an ICU, under the supervision of a well trained doctor then there are minimal risks.Dr Firuza Parekh, Head, Department of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, Jaslok Hospital
Dr Parekh strongly feels that abortions over the stipulated time limit should be decided on a case-to-case basis by a panel of two to three doctors because the last thing a pregnant woman should have to do is run to the courts for her rights and have the entire nation peek into her choice.
Abortion Laws Have Been Challenged Before
Nine years ago, a Mumbai couple Haresh and Niketa Mehta made national headlines with their plea to abort their 26-week-old foetus diagnosed with a congenital heart defect.
For the first time there was a raging debate on the morality of terminating a foetus above 20 weeks, the ethics of knowingly bringing an impaired child into the world and challenging a law set 46 years ago.
The Bombay High Court did not grant the couple’s plea saying that the medical experts had not categorically stated the child would “suffer from serious handicaps” — the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. But the case triggered an amendment to the archaic law.
The Supreme Court handed down a victory to all women in July 2016 when it allowed an anonymous rape survivor to abort her 24-week-old foetus after she learnt that it suffered from Anencephaly, a congenital birth defect where the unborn would grow without a major portion of the brain and skull.
But earlier this year the Supreme Court denied the abortion plea of a 26 week pregnant rape victim living with HIV on grounds that it will endanger her life.
Where’s the Proposed Amendment To the Abortion Law?
In 2014, six years after the famous Niketa Mehta case, the Union Health Ministry drafted the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2014, which aimed at allowing abortions after 20 weeks under special circumstances.
According to the draft law, the decision to allow abortion between 20 and 24 weeks can be taken “in good faith” by a healthcare provider if, among other conditions, the pregnancy involves substantial risks to the mother or child, or if it is “alleged by the pregnant woman to have been caused by rape”.
The revision of a law set more than 46 years back was long overdue but the state of healthcare in India is such that like all other health Bills, this has been sitting in the Parliament from over three years now.
What Do Gynecologists Feel About the 48-year-old Act?
What We Think
Twenty weeks is too narrow a window for genetic abnormalities to manifest. Going by the stark statistic of illegal abortions in India, the outdated law does not stop women from going in the dark to a dangerous quack to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
In a fairer world, the government would not sit for years on a legislation which prevents women from putting their life at risk .
Critics of late abortions would say reviewing the Medical Termination of Pregnancy, Act is an unnecessary government intervention. I imagine they would feel differently stepping on an elevator that hasn’t been inspected in 46 years.