The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 was passed by Lok Sabha on March 17 2020. The bill seeks to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 and follows the MTP bills of 2014, 2017 and 2018 of all which previously lapsed in parliament. The bill was passed in the lower house of the parliament through voice vote. The bill increases the upper limit of legal abortions to 24 weeks for special category of women.
WHY WE NEED THIS AMENDMENT?
Currently, women seeking to terminate the pregnancy beyond 20 weeks have to face the cumbersome legal recourse. This denies reproductive rights of women (as abortion is considered an important aspect of the reproductive health of women).
A 2015 study in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics has observed that 10-13% of maternal deaths in India can be attributed to unsafe abortions. It roughly translates into at least six to seven women losing their life due to unsafe abortions every day. Studies have shown that the 20 week limit on abortion is based on outmoded medical concepts from the 1970s.
Developments in the medical science which include medical abortions in advanced stages of pregnancy have found no legal resonance in the MTP Act.
At present, 26 countries including Egypt, Angola, Thailand, the Philippines, Madagascar and Iraq do not permit abortion when the women’s life is at risk. Only some countries like China, Russia, Canada, Australia, South Africa permit abortion on request mostly upto 12 weeks. Now India will stand amongst nations with highly progressive law which allows legal abortions on a board range of therapeutic, humanitarian and social grounds.
According to sec 3 (2) of the MTP Act, 1971 a pregnancy may be terminated by a registered medical practitioner:
1) Where the length of the pregnancy does not exceed twelve weeks, or
2) Where the length of the pregnancy exceeds twelve weeks but does not exceed twenty weeks. In this case, the abortion will takes place, if not less than two registered medical practitioner are of opinion, that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the life of the pregnant women (her physical or mental health); or if there is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer physical or mental abnormalities.
Several issues are also arising from the current framework under the MTP Act, as the act embodies a clear prejudice against unmarried women. According to ‘Explanation 2’ provided under Section 3 (2) of the Act, where the pregnancy occurs due to failure of any birth control device or method used by any “married women or her husband” the anguish caused is presumed to constitute a “grave injury” to the mental health of the pregnant women. While the applicability of the unmarried women is contested but still the decision rests upon the doctors.
The MTP Act 1971 also fails to provide the protection of privacy of women whose pregnancy has been terminated.
There are several cases where the rights of a minor rape survivor were tragically crushed due to the legal limitations arising out of the MTP Act 1971. A brutally rape survivor was forced to give birth to her rapist’s child after the high court denied her request for the abortion. Examined first by a doctor at 19 weeks of pregnancy, the minor survivor was traumatized when her doctor refused to perform an abortion even though it was permitted under the law. By the time her petition was heard by a court of law, her pregnancy had crossed the 20 week limit beyond which abortion is prohibited under the MTP Act.
In 2008, the Bombay High Court was petitioned by Haresh and Niketa Mehta to allow them to abort their foetus that has been diagnosed with a heart defect in its 22nd week. While the case got nationwide attention, the Mehta’s plea was turned down, and Niketa Mehta eventually suffered a miscarriage in the 27th week of her pregnancy.
Features of the proposed bill:
1) It seeks to extend the upper limit for permitting abortions from 20 weeks to 24 under special circumstances
2) The special categories of women include rape survivors, victims of incest, the differently able and minors.
3) The bill proposes requirement of opinion of one registered medical practitioner (RMP) for termination of pregnancy up to 20 weeks of gestation.
4) It also provides for the requirement of opinion of two RMPs for termination of pregnancy of 20 to 24 weeks.
5) Constitution of medical boards: Every state government is required to constitute a medical board. These Medical Boards will consist of the following members: i) a gynecologist, ii) a pediatrician, iii) a radiologist or sinologist, and iv)any other number of members, as may be government.
6) Under the Bill, if any pregnancy occurs as a result of failure of any device or method used by a women or her partner to limit the number of children, such an unwanted pregnancy may constitute a grave injury to the mental health of the pregnant women.
7) This bill also stipulates that the name and other particulars of the women whose pregnancy is terminated will not be revealed, except to a person authorized in any law which is in force; and any person acting in contravention of this provision will be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 also failed to address most of the problems:
· It doesn't allow abortion on request at any point after the pregnancy.
· It doesn't take a step towards removing the prejudice against unmarried women by amending the relevant provision.
· There is always the danger of a more restrictive interpretation, especially when the final decision rests with the doctor and not the women herself.
· There are concerns about those who have no access to doctors millions of rural women who have never had access to a safe and transparent route to abortion. Victims of incest and rape have to resort to unsafe abortions to maintain secrecy and even married women become desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy for economic reasons.
The move to amend the MTP Act, 1971 is a progressive step towards empowerment of women. It will provide greater reproductive rights to women as abortion is considered an important aspect of the reproductive health of women.
Moreover, the question of abortion needs to be declared on the basis of human rights, the principles of solid science, and in step with advancement of technology.