Abortion is the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. But is it perceived so in India? Well, definitely not. In India, people perceive abortion as a ‘crime’. However, it would not be correct to say that our government and people have not taken any initiative to change this deep-rooted belief. Many campaigns and policies were launched by organisations and activists to bring about a change in the way abortion is perceived in society. But the fact is that in spite of many endeavours there is still stigma around abortion.
The MTP act of 1971, is necessary in a country like ours where unsafe abortions are rampant. However, at implementation level, there are many loopholes in the act that need to be fulfilled. The act specifically mentions that in case of contraceptive failure, a ‘married woman’ can opt for safe abortion services. But, what about the unmarried women? As a society, can we deny the fact that casual sex or pre-marital sex is a choice anyone can make? Apart from this, it also addresses abortion specifically as a surgical procedure that needs to be performed at a clinic, when in fact there are other methods (such as pills) which also help terminate pregnancies safely and may be performed even at home on adequate dosage suggested by the medical practitioner. Besides, the qualification that the MTP act mentions while defining a medical practitioner, narrows the possibility of ANMs and other experienced doctors from providing these services. Hence, many individuals and organisations including FPA India, are fighting for amendments in the MTP act for better implementation.
In the well-known case of Suchita Srivastava and Anr v/s Chandigarh Administration, a bench of three judges granted a mentally retarded 19 to 20-year-old woman, the right to terminate her pregnancy of above 20 weeks. Similarly, in July 2016, the Supreme Court (SC) allowed a 26-year-old alleged rape victim to abort her 24-week-old foetus with several abnormalities. There have been such cases from past years where the SC had has allowed to terminate pregnancies of more than twenty weeks. But, these cases were called ‘Exceptions to the rule’.
In another case in Mumbai, Haresh and Niketa Mehta knocked the door of the court for the termination of 26-week-old pregnancy as the foetus was diagnosed with the congenital heart disease. But, Bombay High Court (HC) rejected the couple’s plea by saying “medical experts had not categorically stated the child would suffer from serious handicaps”. However the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Was the decision of the Bombay HC right? It was in fact, a violation of the fundamental right mentioned under article 21 of the Indian Constitution which states “Right to life and liberty’’.
In the above case, the court’s decision was risking the life of the petitioner and also affecting her mental health. Setting a limit for the termination of a pregnancy of up to 20 weeks is a shackle to the liberty and freedom of the human right of women. When the MTP act was legalised, we did not have adequate facilities to diagnose any defect in the foetus. But today, we have all the facilities to detect abnormalities or terminate pregnancies between and beyond 24-26 weeks. However, the irony is that as per the law, a pregnancy can be terminated only up to 20 weeks.
A common issue raised in society is “whether a mother has a right to abortion vis-a-vis the right to life of the unborn”. However, how could a woman be forced into taking up a responsibility she is not yet ready for? If a woman does not want to continue with her pregnancy, it should be her decision and should be respected by everyone. But, sex-selective abortion is very much illegal under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act of 1994 and should not be supported in any way.
There is a thin line in the interpretations of the MTP and the PCPNDT Acts. Moreover, there are ambiguities in the interpretation of the laws by regulating agencies. Many medical practitioners are not able to state the right reason for the abortion. In our country, many sex-selective abortions are forced upon women by their families, under the garb of ‘Unwanted Pregnancies’. At the same time, many truly unwanted pregnancies are interpreted and questioned by regulating agencies for sex-selective abortion. The PCPNDT Act, however, specifically disallows ‘sex determination’, while the MTP Act gives women some liberty to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Hence, both these acts work in unison to give women the right to abort in case of unwanted pregnancies without sex-determination or selection. And those who do opt for sex-selection, should be rightly punished by law.
A woman should be empowered with her sexual rights and choices, both, in her interest. Healthy and safe living is the most basic Human Right and everyone is entitled to have this right. Delivering a child should be a happy experience for every mother, BUT, only when she wants it. Hence, her right to choose what to do with an unwanted pregnancy, should be protected in good faith.
Intern, FPA India