Last week, it was reported that the Centre was exploring extending the period during a woman’s pregnancy that they could undergo an abortion to between 24 and 26 weeks. The proposed amendment to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act would mark a major reform to India’s abortion laws, which presently permit abortion during the first twenty weeks of pregnancy in cases where there is “a risk to the life of the pregnant woman or of grave injury physical or mental health; or there is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”
Ostensibly liberal in nature, India’s abortion laws have come under fire from activists who claim they are too restrictive. Currently, if a woman seeks an abortion after twenty weeks, they require ‘judicial authorisation’, involving the assent of a district-level medical board and a court. For women without the financial or legal means to acquire this authorisation, the choice often comes down to carrying their pregnancy to term or obtaining a so-called ‘backstreet’ abortion, a recourse which can pose a substantial risk to health. Indeed, thirteen women die from unsafe abortions in India every day.
The Centre informed the Delhi High Court last week that it was consulting with the relevant ministries to reform the MTP Act. Expanding on this, an under-secretary in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said that a note had been sent to the Union Ministry of Law and Justice earlier this year following a consultation with government think tank Niti Aayog and the Union Ministries of Social Justice and Empowerment and Women and Child Development. As Parliament was adjourned at the time, the Union Law Ministry reverted the note so that the proposed reforms could be deliberated following the inauguration of a new government after the Lok Sabha elections.
The Centre’s missive to the Madras High Court reflects that it has the appetite for reproductive rights reform in India. While undoubtedly an issue enconsced in controversy on multiple fronts, abortion law reform has the potential to effect improvements in women’s health and development. It is, therefore, a boon that the Centre is exploring this option.