The Union Cabinet has approved extending the timeframe in which a woman can avail an abortion to 24 weeks, in what has been described as a “progressive reform”, compared to the current upper limit of twenty weeks at present. This move marks a significant step towards abortion reform law.
The approval of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 lays the groundwork for the Bill to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. “In a progressive reform and giving reproductive rights to women, the limit of twenty weeks of medical termination of pregnancy has been increased to 24 weeks,” commented Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, who holds the portfolios of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and Information and Broadcasting in the Union Government.
Elaborating as to the importance of the Bill, Javadekar said “this is important because in [the] first five months there are cases where the girl concerned doesn’t realise and has to go to court. This was discussed with various stakeholders.” He expressed the view that the amendment will “reduce maternal mortality.”
Abortion law reform has been sought by activists for some time, with petitioners calling for an extension to the 26 week-mark during the gestation period. Last year, it was reported that the Centre was consulting with ministries on amending the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act following the filing of a public interest litigation by social activist Amit Sahni.
At present, Indian law permits abortion only in the first twenty weeks of pregnancy in cases where “the pregnancy would involve 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.” This would require the assent of one medical practitioner in the first twelve weeks and two medical practitioners thereafter.
The Centre said at the time that “the administrative ministry has already initiated the process of inter-ministerial consultation for the amendment in MTP Act 1971 and will finalise the same as soon as possible.” However, it was later reported that the timeframe would not be extended. A government affidavit said “petitioners on their right to reproductive autonomy does not outweigh the interest of the state in protecting the life of [the] foetus in the womb, especially from the point of viability (i.e from the period of twenty weeks onwards). It is a settled law that personal freedom of choice of an individual cannot curtail the freedom or choice of other individuals, [especially] the most vulnerable and persons who are defenceless.”
Approval of abortion law reform by the Union Cabinet shows a change in direction. It will come as welcome news to campaigners who – despite the ostensibly liberal nature of India’s abortion law – see reform as necessary. Activists have long argued that the laws surrounding such procedures are too restrictive, necessitating abortion law reform. Many have suggested the current legislative scenario regarding the termination of pregnancies could drive women to access unsafe abortions, risking their lives. As previously reported by Health Issues India
“It has been suggested that current restrictions – as well as lack of awareness surrounding the legal status of abortion in India – force women to seek illicit, ‘backdoor’ abortions – posing substantial risk to their health. Research suggests 56 percent of abortions performed in India are unsafe, with thirteen women dying each day as a consequence. This is compounded by the relative lack of accessibility for abortions in India.”
The existing restrictions, we noted, do not mean that abortions cannot be conducted after the twenty-week mark. However, they “can be carried out…only with the assent of both a district-level medical board and a court. Activists have argued that this impinges on the reproductive rights of those without the financial means to pursue such authorisation, as well as causing unnecessary emotional trauma.”
Abortion is undoubtedly a controversial and polarising issue. The steps by the Government towards abortion law reform will no doubt be the subject of fierce debate.
The Bill is expected to be introduced to lawmakers in Parliament.